‘All That Breathes’ director-producer Shaunak Sen on the ‘abstract triangulation of air, humans, birds’

All That Breathes,” Shaunak Sen‘s Oscar-nominated documentary, was born when the director-producer was driving through New Delhi and saw a black dot falling down in the sky. It was black kite, a bird of prey that has been crippled by the city’s toxic air pollution. “I just happened to Google ‘Where do birds that fall off go?’ And I realized that there were many of these every day,” Sen tells Gold Derby at our Producers Guild of America Awards nominees panel (watch above).

Sen discovered Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, two brothers who, along with their assistant Salik, have dedicated their live to rehabilitating black kites and other birds in a cramped basement. “Just on a lark, I decided to visit Nadeem and Saud, who in their tiny, grubby, derelict basement have been treating black kites for the last 15 years. I realized they’ve been treated 25,000 black kites over the last 15 years and just the fact that that’s staggering,” Sen continues. “That’s actually not the most interesting part. They’re also philosophers and I wanted to do kind of a cinematic, poetic, lyrical piece on coexistence and kinship or entanglement between human and non-human life in the city.”

As Sen describes it, he didn’t set out nor did he want to do an environmental film or a nature film or a political film, though the mounting unrest plays an inescapable part in the story. Rather, it was important to show the interconnectedness of mankind and nature, and that we are all part of the same delicate ecosystem. “When you live in the city of Delhi, the air is such an opaque, gray, heavy, tactile big presence,” he explains. “You’re often thinking about it. It has such a creepy sentience that you’re often cogitating about the air itself. And I was interested also philosophically in human-animal relationships, and in a way I wanted to do something on this abstract triangulation of air, humans, birds.”

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“All That Breathes” is Sen’s second documentary after his 2016 debut “Cities of Sleep” and his first as a producer. He learned from his first film how to have more control and to “figure out things.” “You figure out that raising resources is a slow accretion and it’s actually better that way. You figure out things like what is good money and what is bad money,” he says, adding that “All That Breathes” benefited from grants and equity. After pitching, Sen teamed with Teddy Leifer‘s Rise Films and Tangled Bank Studios, the latter of which was the primary financiers. “It was a slow kind of accretion and I think that kind of a thing worked better because different rhythms of different productions ultimately require different collaborators.”

Filming took three years, with production beginning in January 2019, and Sen eventually axed the first eight months of footage — merely him adapting his film to the material he was getting from the brothers not unlike how nature adapts. “In the first year, after six or eight months, I was shooting handheld and handheld is kind of restless and because the characters are so contemplative, it was clear to me that eventually I had to move to a more fluid style of shooting,” he shares. “We trashed about eight months of shooting and started shooting again with this more cinematic style. After that, it’s like a fever dream. It’s a freefall. Things keep happening. Really the hardest decision is when to stop, not how to shoot or what to shoot. It’s always when to stop, when you think you have enough for 90-minute film.”

And how did he know when to stop? “When we all reached a critical mass of exhaustion and when we all reached a critical mass of impatience,” he jokes. “No, I had some of the beats in my head and once the nerve center of this one thing’s been hit, you know that you have a vague kind of parable. I had a vague sense of that and I was often editing while shooting.”

Last year, “All That Breathes” won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Golden Eye at the Cannes Film Festival. In addition to the Oscar and PGA, it’s been nominated for a BAFTA and Directors Guild of America Award. “All three of them went to Cannes. At this point, Nadeem has almost been to as many festivals as I have. He’s gone to a ton of festivals to the point that I now think he’s surprised when there are screenings without him,” Sen cracks. “He’s gonna come for the BAFTAs and for the Oscars.” While their newfound fame is fun, their work is their true focus. “Our financiers have provided a year’s funding to the bird hospital,” Sen reveals. “Their life is not easy. It’s financially and emotionally very demanding and it’s not like the film will change everything in one fell swoop, so hopefully the film will provide some alleviation or a year’s worth of oasis to their life.”

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