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J.D. Long-GarcíaMarch 10, 2023
Salik Rehman of Wildlife Rescue in New Delhi in “All That Breathes.” (Cinetic Media)

Do you know the story about the child and the thousands of starfish stranded on the beach? I heard it for the first time years ago at church. The way our pastor told it, the child was throwing starfish back into the sea, one by one, to save them from the blistering sun.

An older man comes along and tells the child, “You can’t save them all. Why bother?” The child shrugs it off, looks at the starfish he had just picked up, and says, “Well, I can save this one!”

In a way, the documentary “All That Breathes,” which is an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary, contextualizes that little story, which is based on “The Star Thrower” by Loren Eisely. But the contemplative film moves beyond it to echo aspects of Ignatian spirituality.

“All That Breathes,” an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary, echo aspects of Ignatian spirituality.

The documentary follows two brothers who run a hospital for birds of prey in New Delhi. Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shezad—along with their assistant Salik Rehman—tend to a variety of injured birds, but primarily black kites, which are native to the area.

The opening shot of the documentary, which is directed by Shaunak Sen and is now streaming on HBO Max, is out of focus. The viewer sees only distorted lights and hears the sound of dogs barking. It is night. The picture comes into focus to reveal canines rummaging for food in a field of trash. Trucks and pedestrians pass by. And then, as the camera pans right…rats. A lot of them. They scurry about in the foreground as a motorcycle zips down the street.

The rats foreshadow the focus on black kites, which are described as “about as unloved as the pigeon” by Oliver Whang in his 2020 New York Times story about the brothers. According to The Times, Jains established many animal hospitals in the city. But their practice of nonviolence precludes them from caring for carnivorous birds. That is where the brothers, who are Muslim, come in.

This small band of good Samaritans, like the filmmakers themselves, make it easy to find God in all things—including scavengers and parasites.

“One shouldn’t differentiate between all that breathes,” Saud says, recalling his mother’s words. “Trees, fungus or vegetation, natural and supernatural worlds were mixed for her.”

The brothers are funding their bird hospital with profits from their business. The family manufactures liquid soap dispensers in their basement. A pair of workers assembles the dispensers in a small room just on the other side of the wall from the bird hospital.

The film juxtaposes nature with technology. Hogs nose through refuse in a stream and monkeys climb along cables between buildings. A man walks home with his camel after work and insects swim through water pooled on discarded signs. Kites perch majestically atop a mountain of rubbish in the landfill.

Black kites aren’t cuddly. They’re predators, not pets. After they heal, the kites fly away.

The film contemplates the interdependence of life on Earth. But it also explores how we and our technological inventions both conserve and desecrate the rest of creation.

As the brothers use a grinder to mince meat for the flock of kites, it breaks. We get a glimpse of the tension brewing between them—the challenge of balancing the business with family life and the wildlife refuges. It can be too much.

Then Salik raises one of his many curious questions. If he lay perfectly still in the cage, he wonders aloud, would the kites eat him? His comment resets the conversation.

“The truth is, cruelty is often natural,” Saud says, before his brother interjects, “Humans often forget they’re also pieces of meat.”

Technology continues to fall short. The power goes out while Saud treats a wounded bird. Their basement floods. And then there’s the smog, which poisons all breathing things in the city.

After they receive adequate funding, the brothers build a new, bigger animal hospital on their roof. From the basement, they carefully transport 172 birds to higher ground. They are constantly wanting to learn and adapt to care for more birds, and do so more effectively. A sense of magis can be detected in the brothers’ efforts.

The brothers don’t care for them as equals, so to speak, but as good stewards care for creation.

But they struggle to keep up. An endless parade of kites arrives at the hospital in cardboard boxes. One by one, the brothers tend to them. Despite their number, each bird matters—especially to Saud. Late one evening, when his wife offers to help him with the birds, he at first refuses. After she takes over, he falls asleep in the chair next to her.

Toward the end of the film, a stone-faced Saud squats before more than a dozen dead birds. Salik tells him not to worry, that he’ll bury them by himself that afternoon. But Saud insists on joining him.

“You’re exhausted,” the younger man tells him. “Why are you acting crazy?”

“I’m being crazy?” Saud snaps. “Look what’s happening outside!”

In the surrounding neighborhood, religious riots have broken out, mosques are being vandalized and people are being killed. The dead kites point to a much deeper pestilence.

Black kites aren’t cuddly. They’re predators, not pets. After they heal, the kites fly away. The brothers don’t care for them as equals, so to speak, but as good stewards care for creation.

“You don’t care for things because they share the same country, religion or politics. Life itself is kinship,” Saud says toward the end of the film. “We’re all a community of air. That’s why we can’t abandon the birds.”

“All That Breathes” features unforgettable, sublime takes of black kites gliding effortlessly through the sky. Some shots home in on a solitary bird while others show a dizzying array of intersecting flight paths. You could watch the film endlessly and never see every bird. There is a satisfaction that comes simply from appreciating the beauty of creation.

But it cannot end there. Recognizing the majesty of black kites, like finding God in all things, compels us to act. The documentary depicts a small team of people who, in the face of insurmountable environmental degradation, have chosen to do something.

More: Film

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