Two years ago, a profile appeared in ProPublica of an activist who had become convinced that the climate apocalypse was imminent. What made this man different from others was his fervor: After spending years writing op-eds about the urgency of the crisis, practicing “humanure,” and chastising his family members for having the wrong priorities, he’d put his wife through so much that she wondered if she had Stockholm syndrome. Although elements of his dedication to the cause were farcical, I was persuaded that there was something heroic and vital about his response that the rest of us were missing.
Today, however, I find myself stuck less on the ethical question at the heart of his struggle and more on the philosophical and political question of what it means for humanity to contain multitudes in our variegated responses to planetary crisis. Some people wake up every morning with ambient melancholia, while others seem wholly unaffected. Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes, a documentary that follows two twin brothers and a friend who operate a bird rehabilitation hospital that rescues injured black kites in New Delhi, explores not only animal adaptation to profound ecological strain but human adaptation, too. Sen’s filmmaking style, slow and watchful, pays respect to their way of observing the urban ecosystem they inhabit.
These three men, who work out of a garage in a working-class neighborhood subject to regular power outages and floods, have quietly and methodically taken on the arbitrary and monumental mission of saving Delhi’s dying kites. Why? I spoke with Sen about this question and more in the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Jasmine Liu: Can you expand on the sort of trans-species love and devotion that is on display in All That Breathes?
Shaunak Sen: I’m interested in what we do when we know that the world is not doing great. I’ve always been interested in an intensity when it’s articulated between human and nonhuman life. Some of my favorite bits of literature capture this magical, otherworldly aura that certain animals inspire in us: for instance, The Peregrine by J.A. Baker, a phenomenally written prose work about one man’s relationship with the peregrine falcon in Essex, in the UK, in the 1960s. Or H Is for Hawk, or Grief Is a Thing With Feathers, or the umpteenth sundry books that have birds. Birds especially inaugurate a passion in us, and so much of our language is underwritten by avian metaphors. When I first met the brothers, they would talk about being teenage bodybuilders, which is how they first got interested in matters of flesh, muscles, and tendons. They spoke about the magnetic feeling they had with this alien-like, otherworldly, wondrous being that is the black kite. When you look at a black kite, it’s not a cute songbird—it’s a ferocious raptor. It evokes something magisterial. I think it’s possible to mobilize this awe for ecological purposes. For the brothers, it started a lifelong journey of radical empathy. For me, they’re like three Don Quixotes who peddle in micro-miracles.
JL: There’s this sequence early in the documentary where two of them swim across a river to save an injured kite who otherwise would have likely been killed by crows, and they completely exhaust themselves with the task. I thought: How many more dozens of kites were being predated on by crows at that present moment in Delhi? Why go through such intense labor for this one kite? And then, on top of all that, why kites and not crows? If you aren’t struck by their sense of awe, their dedication and purpose is hard to understand. Did you ever struggle to understand what they do?
SS: The whole film is an exploration of that question: Why do they do what they do? Like all complicated questions, there is absolutely no one answer to this. The film started with a “why” and became a “how.” It started with an epistemic question and became an ontological question.
It’s like if you’re having a difficult conversation with a friend, and you say, “Why did you do this?” And they say, “But that’s who I am.” There’s a semantic shift that happens in that moment, because it shifts from the coordinates of “why” to the coordinates of “who.” That implicitly entails a kind of opacity, but it’s a rich, profound opacity.
They usually say the most ridiculous things when you ask them why they do it. They’ll joke about it becoming a habit to them, or being a bit mad. Remember that for the longest time, over a decade, they’ve been criticized and told off by their parents and families, who have made disparaging comments about their work. It takes a tremendous toll on their life and mental health, and they still carry on—and that’s why it’s a worthy topic to study, cinematically and otherwise. It’s a monumentally elusive question. They don’t eulogize or romanticize themselves. A lot of ecological discourse is very nervous, often doom-and-gloom paranoia, but the brothers have a wry resilience in how they handle things. As a kind of intellectual and emotional position, the opacity of their actions was very interesting to me; they don’t have an answer at all. To me, it provided an interesting philosophical attitude toward climate change and the Anthropocene.
JL: I was intrigued by how the brothers learned to take care of kites through reading bodybuilding publications. Their wildlife rescue has a DIY ethic. I wonder what you make of that, especially given that liberal hand-wringing around the climate crisis often has to do with the technocratic nature of the challenge.
SS: The brothers are interesting because, yes, they have for the longest time had a DIY, slapdash, informal kind of approach, and there’s an improvisatory forward momentum to their lives. Their hospital has developed at a pace that’s like, “Let’s build a door this week, and maybe next month we’ll get enough money for the frame of the door.” It’s also a constant arm-wrestle, because they don’t like the DIY tag. They want to professionalize. I’ve spoken to vets who say they have far more knowledge than the brothers do. It’s a dance between a fully professionalized hospital, which they’re moving towards now, and the things that pull them back, which are often improvisations that stem from financial inadequacy and having to manage through work-arounds. You’re right that a lot of technocratic, liberal hand-wringing is often clinically distant from things, and it makes semantic moves into bigger concepts purely rhetorical. The brothers are philosophers, organic intellectuals, and handymen who are doing actual, hard everyday labor, which is very material and productive in a concrete sense.
JL: Why do you characterize them as philosophers and organic intellectuals?
SS: Surely the word “philosopher,” or “intellectual,” has to be democratized, secularized, and disaggregated beyond the confines of the academy or a certain kind of historical figure. Also because they’re really experiential—the things they say about nonhuman life or about urban ecology are things that they have imbibed in their everyday life. It’s a different kind of intellect, which is obviously not bookish but an aggregation of knowledge over years. That, to me, sounds like a robust philosophical enterprise. The kind of work that they do needs to be motored by a deep, spiritual, conceptual belief system. It can’t take place in a vacuum, so it’s important to look at the conceptual engines that bolster their daily work.
JL: There are certain visual languages we’ve come to associate with films portraying ecological crisis: I think of ugly landscapes of heaps of trash, traffic jams, and smog. What was striking about All That Breathes was how these same scenes are rendered with lyricism. What draws you to that aesthetic?
SS: There are two factors to this. Traditionally, the Global South has been burdened with telling stories about the social—about disempowerment, disenfranchisement, social asphyxia, poverty, and those kinds of things—whereas it’s on the European film set where you see stories about existential crisis and philosophical arm-wrestling. I want interiority in films coming out of my regions of the world. Also, I was dealing with subjects with a rich inner life.
Initially, I started by shooting with a handheld camera. After six to eight months, I realized that handheld has an anxious energy around it, whereas the film had to be consonant with the brothers and their vibe, which is contemplative and meditative. Therefore, it also had to find a language that was flowy and comfortable with abstraction, dreamy and aestheticized. Therefore, we used a lot of tools of fiction storytelling, like cranes and tracks and dollies, to tell a nonfiction story.
JL: It was only when they talked about applying for grants late in the documentary that it occurred to me that the film avoids describing their work in utilitarian terms—despite the fact that these kites are very good at eliminating waste in urban areas. Was it deliberate to not frame their work in that way?
SS: The question of how one gives out information is a question of craft and dramaturgy. You know that you have a given amount of time. It’s like when you’re structuring an article: There might be important things that come in paragraph three or four, but you have your own sort of structure, which is an emotional arc. Very often in a three-act structure, you’re paying obeisance to an emotional through line where at certain points you want the audience to feel a certain way. In the film, the moment about the essential ecological work that the kites do for the city—it’s a metabolic labor that the kites do—had to come at a point where we want the work that the brothers do to work out. It comes at a point in the film where they’re financially doing badly: They’ve gone to the meat seller to ask for help, and so on. At that point, when you think of the work that they do, it gets underscored with a special urgency.
JL: There are two concurrent attitudes that they espouse. On the one hand, there’s this superhuman perspective on evolution: that it’s egotistical to think about the ways the world has changed as purely negative, that life forms and the world adapt. But then there’s also the undeniable reality that the population of kites is declining. How did you see them balance these two perspectives?
SS: Whenever you think deeply about nature, you come to terms with the staggering indifference and agnosticism of the planet. Anybody who really deals with the stuff of nature has to deal with it. You have to do this balancing act of not overly personifying and anthropomorphizing nature; having said that, you know that there is clearly deleterious harm being caused. You have to work these two things through. In the most toxic places, there will still be some life form that is flourishing. Rats, weeds, and different kinds of insects flourish in certain toxic ecosystems—that’s nature, too. Nature is often this dance of whose life careers wane out and whose succeed. Waiting for Godot has one of my favorite lines: “The tears of the world are a constant quantity.” You privilege some degree of ecological trauma, but also have to keep an eye on other kinds of ecological opportunism that take place.
JL: Toward the end of the documentary, a more traditional plot arc emerges, wherein these figures who have lived in obscurity see some recognition and fame, and things improve for them as a result. How do you feel about your own role in possibly altering the trajectory of their practice and their lives?
SS: The plot is actually shockingly simple, right? My favorite films are less about plot and more about story, where story is a bigger container of mood, drives, and so on. In the film, there’s a constant battle between narrative and anti-narrative, in which the shots and the vignettes of nonhuman life show life writ large on the canvas of the city, but they are constantly jostling cheek by jowl against the more conventional plot of the brothers in terms of what happens to their hospital. By the end, a narrative telos is arrived at: The twins separate, and the hospital is doing OK compared to the crisis earlier. That has to do with the craft of a three-act structure that you’re trying to adhere to, and how to tweak audience expectations and where you want to leave them.
Of course, the film as an endeavor has altered their lives somewhat. The jury is still out on how big it is. I just want it to be an alleviation materially, an oasis in their lives. One shouldn’t simplemindedly overstate what a film can do. It’s not like a film can, in one fell swoop, change the life of a whole extended family. But there are things they’re thrilled about—the travel, for instance—and the producers have very kindly funded the hospital for a year.