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A noble pursuit takes flight in ‘All That Breathes’

“All That Breathes” (2022). Cast: Salik Rehman, Mohammad Saud, Nadeem Shehzad. Director: Shaunek Sen. Web site. Trailer.

Lofty notions are often seen as impractical and unrealistic. And, indeed, they’re frequently looked upon as impossible to implement given their staggering requirements and essential commitment. But that’s not to say that they can’t be accomplished with the right amount of determination and a strong faith in the possibility of their fulfillment. One such instance is aptly and beautifully chronicled in the uplifting new documentary, “All That Breathes.”

The Indian capital of New Delhi is a city beset by an array of challenges. With an urban population of 11 million and another 17 million in its adjacent Delhi capital district, it’s the world’s second largest metropolitan area. And, with so many people packed into such a concentrated area, the city and its surroundings suffer from environmental issues, most notably its suffocating air quality, which the World Health Organization designated as the worst on the planet in 2014. This has led to severe health problems – particularly those of a respiratory nature – for many of its residents. But it doesn’t end there; it has also seriously impacted the city’s animal population, especially its birds (most notably its large flocks of black kites), who often become so impaired while in flight that they literally fall out of the sky.

In addition to these environmental issues, the Delhi region has increasingly become prone to civil unrest, with both demonstrations and street violence, often of a political and/or religious nature. The threats posed by these events often make life difficult for the locals, with protecting one’s personal safety and well-being becoming the top priorities. Indeed, with such immediately pressing matters necessarily taking precedence, it’s frequently impossible for many to be concerned with virtually anything else.

Indian bird rescuers Mohammed Saud (left) and Salik Rehman (right) attend to a black kite with a broken wing in their makeshift New Delhi avian hospital in the beautiful new urban wildlife documentary, “All That Breathes.” Photo courtesy of HBOMAX.

But those conditions don’t stop everyone from trying to make their city a more habitable place for both man and animal alike. That’s where the noble efforts of two committed brothers come into play. Since 2003, Nadeem Shehzad and his younger sibling, Mohammad Saud, have devoted their lives to the care and protection of Delhi’s ill and injured bird population (primarily kites) through a makeshift avian clinic in their building’s basement. In that time, they and their colleague, Salik Rehman, who joined their efforts in 2017, have nursed 20,000 kites back to health.

The lengths that these Samaritans go to in aiding their feathered friends are often quite astounding. As the film shows, they’ll engage in such actions as wading across bodies of water to rescue incapacitated birds, efforts that sometimes even put their own safety at risk. What’s more, considering the volume of birds under treatment at any given time, the wounded ones often occupy much of the available space in the brothers’ building. But it’s that kind of dedication that led to their establishment of Wildlife Rescue, an organization devoted to this cause. And this work didn’t go unnoticed by officials; for his efforts, Nadeem was recently appointed an Honorary Wildlife Warden of Delhi. He also honed his skills further in 2021, when he spent three months in the U.S. receiving training with bird rescue organizations.

A black kite receives a much-needed bath at the facilities of Wildlife Rescue, a bird rescue organization devoted to saving New Delhi’s ill and injured bird population, in director Shaunek Sen’s beautiful new Oscar-nominated documentary, “All That Breathes.” Photo courtesy of HBOMAX.

When there are so many challenges affecting us on a daily basis – especially in a city battling escalating social unrest and ongoing environmental issues – it may seem unfathomable that anyone could, or would want or be able to, spend time, energy and effort on an easily dismissed cause like bird rescue. But the trio working on this project clearly possesses an enlightened vision to view the bigger picture importance of this endeavor, employing a wider perspective. In times like these, strange as it may seem to some, such individuals are just as valuable to the continued existence of our world as anyone working on the front lines to address what are thought to be its most immediately pressing problems. Without those willing to take on challenges like these, there’s no telling where we might be headed in the long run.

Still, even with that knowledge, one might legitimately wonder why anyone would take up a task like this, especially since it’s one that may not attract wider attention, something that might also be accompanied by issues like a lack of support and, to keep it going, a lack of funding. Yet the brothers and their colleague carry on nonetheless, because they believe its goals can be fulfilled. And those beliefs are important, for they drive the process of what ultimately manifests, thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources are responsible for the materialization of the world around us. It’s unclear whether Mohammed, Nadeem and Salik have ever heard of this school of thought, but, given their success, it’s quite apparent that they’ve mastered its principles and employed them to make their aspirations come true.

Bird rescuer Salik Rehman meets with one of his avian “patients” in documentarian Shaunek Sen’s second feature, “All That Breathes.” Photo courtesy of HBOMAX.

Perhaps the most important belief at work here is the rescuers’ conviction that everything is connected, both with humanity and all that resides in its surrounding environment. They take the view that the birds are just as vital to our existence as we are and that, consequently, they’re just as worthy of care and nurturing as we are when injured. This viewpoint is, arguably, broader than that held by many humans, taking into account an appreciation for everything that legitimately resides within our world. When such an understanding is embraced and employed, it demonstrates a degree of inclusiveness and compassion that a reality with so many innate problems must have if it’s to survive and thrive going forward. The trio of Samaritans here see the rich and diverse tapestry of our existence – and the need for each and every strand of it to be preserved and cared for lest it unravel into a collection of disconnected threads.

This is particularly true where the kites are concerned, as they are a bird of prey that’s essential to the proper functioning of the ecosystem. Their preservation is crucial if a harmonious balance is to be maintained in the environment. Were it not for them, the streets of New Delhi could well be vastly overrun with all manner of vermin, making an often-challenged ecosystem even more difficult to endure for all the creatures – man and animal – that inhabit its environs.

Practical considerations aside, however, the rescuers carry out their mission for an even more vital purpose – because it’s the right thing to do. Nadeem, Mohammed and Salik have a profound reverence for their world and everything in it, and they’re doing their part so that said sacredness is maintained. This is their destiny, what conscious creators often call their value fulfillment, the act of being their best truest selves for the betterment and welfare of themselves and everyone around them. And, based on what’s shown in this film, it’s apparent they’ve lived up to every bit of that ambition.

New Delhi’s sizable black kite population is integral to the city’s ecosystem, but such issues as poor air quality threaten their well-being, as seen in the new documentary, “All That Breathes,” available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of HBOMAX.

In an age where selfishness has run roughshod over selflessness, it’s comforting to know that there are those out there who have not succumbed to these troubling circumstances. And, thankfully, evidence of this is generously served up in director Shaunak Sen’s poetic, gorgeously filmed documentary. The film is positively beautiful to look at and does tremendous justice to the dedication and compassion of these wildlife Samaritans. In doing so, the filmmaker offers poignant observations about the connections that bind all of us – both man and animal – to one another, despite whatever petty squabbles or secular considerations might attempt to get in the way, augmented by thoughtful voiceovers, a beautiful, atmospheric score, and stunning cinematography, particularly in its close-up footage of the black kites as they’re so lovingly nursed back to health. A few segments drag a bit, especially with their inclusion of a little too much needless incidental footage, but, if that’s the picture’s greatest failing, there’s really little to otherwise fault in this widely decorated release. This is the kind of film that beckons us to heed that age-old advice about taking time to stop and smell the proverbial roses – and to teach us all how to take flight as the truly concerted, humane individuals we’re capable of being.

“All That Breathes” has certainly garnered its share of recognition in the time since its release. The film captured the 2022 Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema – Documentary category and the Cannes Film Festival’s Golden Eye Award, as well as being named one of the year’s Top 5 Documentaries by the National Board of Review. It also received nominations as best documentary feature at the Oscars, the BAFTA Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards. That’s quite a haul for a film with subject matter such as this. The film is available for streaming online.

The world could certainly use more individuals like the Samaritans depicted in this film. In fact, if we had as many people committed to projects like bird rescue as we do who are ready to engage in manmade conflicts, chaos and calamities, we would certainly find ourselves living in a very different world. That’s not to suggest such an outcome is unattainable, but it has to start with our beliefs – and changing them to pursue these goals instead of those pointless endeavors that so many are willing to take up. Now there’s an idea that could truly take off. And maybe, with an example to emulate like the one shown here, perhaps someday it will.

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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