Temple hosts Oscar-nominated documentary showing and discussion

Director Shaunak Sen’s 2023 film “All That Breathes” explores the relationship between birds and their caretakers living in polluted air in New Delhi, India.

Temple hosted a screening of “All That Breathes”, an Oscar-nominated documentary Directed by Shaunak Sen. | WILL KIRKPATRICK / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Growing up in New Delhi, brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad often watched black kites soaring in the sky as family members offered meat to the birds of prey. According to Muslim tradition, feeding the kites was believed to alleviate troubles. 

However, these birds of good fortune are now plummeting from polluted skies. New Delhi citizens awake to a thick covering of yellow, hazy smog every day, as the district’s air quality index consistently passes the hazardous level of 500, and millions of birds and wildlife suffer and die each year. 

The brothers now dedicate themselves to caring for the injured black kites. Despite environmental challenges and societal turmoil due to anti-Islam protests, they tirelessly care for the birds in their improvised avian basement hospital. 

Their story is chronicled by the 2023 Oscar-nominated documentary “All That Breathes,” which director Shaunak Sen screened at Temple’s Performing Arts Center on Wednesday evening. 

At 5 p.m., up to 50 eager students, faculty, staff and members of the public flooded into the free showing, and about 90 minutes later engaged in a question-and-answer session hosted by Chris Cagle, a film history and theory professor. 

The event was hosted as part of the Arts Interdisciplinary Research initiative created by Temple’s Center for the Performing and Cinematic Arts. 

Last year, Temple hosted Nikyatu Jusu, director of the horror film “NANNY.” The event was highly successful among film and media students as well as various participants and staff members, so film and media arts professor Kartik Nair was interested in hosting a similar high-profile showing event this year.

“We’re hoping to kind of emulate some of that with a different filmmaker this semester,” Nair said. “Although Shaunak has a PhD in film studies from Delhi, he is visiting in his capacity more as a filmmaker than as a film scholar.”

Nair encouraged Sen to share his work with students because the two had a pre-existing friendship from when they attended the same graduate program in Delhi. Sen, also known for his 2015 documentary “Cities of Sleep,” is based in Delhi, so his visit to Main Campus was a rare opportunity for event participants. 

“It did take a lot of planning to finally get this going, and this is part of a longer journey that [Sen] is undertaking in the States to show the film and discuss it after,” Nair said.

As the hour and thirty-seven minute film concluded, viewers paused to watch the credits roll and await Sen’s appearance. As the director stepped onto the stage, the audience erupted into applause, opening the event’s discussion segment. 

Shaunak during a Q&A session after Wednesday’s screening at the Performing Arts Center. | WILL KIRKPATRICK / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Sen shared his process for documenting the “kite-brothers” throughout three years, delving into the bond between the boys and the birds. While Saud and Shehzad work together toward a common goal of saving as many kites as possible, the film also explores their trivial fights and the differences in their personalities. 

“​​The brothers have a fight because the meat grinding machine breaks down, and it starts with a small case of bickering that escalates into something slightly amplified,” Sen said. “And one of the brothers, Saud, says that, ‘This fight that’s happening between us, it’s not about this, it’s about [what’s around us],’ because what he’s actually gesturing towards is a broader ecological melody.”

Sen also discussed the themes of religious discrimination and climate change laced periodically throughout the film. Multiple scenes in the documentary show animals interacting with their environment plagued by pollution: a turtle climbed through plastic while a cow dug through piles of trash for any sight of earth. 

“It’s as much about [the animals’] relationship to the natural world or the sense of how they try to open up to the city,” Sen said. “We immediately think of nature as something that occurs somewhere far away, in the forest, jungles, beaches, but not in the city, but we now know that the city’s an aggressive driver and accelerator of changes even in non-human life, behavior, and evolution.”

Students took full advantage of the opportunity to watch Sen’s film and learn directly from him.

Anjola Adegbite, a junior media studies and film production major, was impressed by how much time Sen spent with the brothers.

“With this film, you were forced to look at the beauty, and it’s the longer shots and longer takes that really just puts you in that world, and that was what I really enjoyed about it,” Adegbtr said. “What I really noticed and I also just admire how long it took, too.” 

Besides having insight into a world they may otherwise know nothing about, audience members appreciated the film’s beauty and cinematography.

“I thought it was stunning,” said Alison Crouse, director of film and media arts and study away program operations. “I didn’t go into it knowing quite what to expect other than the subject matter. I found it absolutely beautiful and meditative.”

“All That Breathes” was nominated for one Oscar among 43 other awards and ultimately won 24 accreditations. The documentary is now streaming on MAX.

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