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Shaunak Sen on Oscar entry All That Breathes: I wanted to tell a story on the tone and texture of living in Delhi

All That Breathes is competing for Best Documentary Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards along with Navalny, Fire of Love and All The Beauty And The Bloodshed

Soujannya Das Calcutta Published 06.03.23, 04:37 PM
Shaunak Sen (second from left) with Ali Fazal, Tom Cruise and Guneet Monga at the Oscars nominees’ luncheon.

Shaunak Sen (second from left) with Ali Fazal, Tom Cruise and Guneet Monga at the Oscars nominees’ luncheon.

He has already rubbed shoulders with the likes of Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg at the 95th Academy Awards nominees’ lunch. Now, filmmaker Shanak Sen is counting days to the big awards night on March 12. His film All That Breathes — about two brothers devoted to protecting and saving the Black Kites of Delhi from its poisonous air — is one of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature Film at the Oscars 2023. All That Breathes is also one of the three Indian entries at the Oscars this year. Shaunak Sen spoke to The Telegraph Online about the making of this powerful one-hour-34-minute-long film and his whirlwind Oscar campaign.

Congratulations on All That Breathes being nominated for Best Documentary Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards. How has your life changed since this announcement?


Shaunak Sen: Whenever a film comes out, your life indeed becomes hyper-peripatetic and that’s how it has been for me. My life has utterly transformed since All That Breathes came out. We started our journey from the Sundance Film Festival last year, through the Cannes Film Festival to BFI London Film Festival and others. It’s just been a relentless treadmill of flights, screenings, hotels and constant travelling.

The recent weeks have been more geared towards the campaign for the Oscars as I am having to cover a wide base of screenings. It has been exhilarating in equal measure. It is tiring and demanding but at the same time it has been incredibly joyful because I’m getting to show the film to so many people. At the Oscars nominees lunch, I’ve had the opportunity to meet my heroes Steven Spielberg, Martin McDonagh, Colin Farrell and others. It definitely feels like a dream!

What are your expectations around All That Breathes at the Oscars? Which films in this category do you think are big contenders for the trophy?

Shaunak Sen: All the films have already proven their calibre to reach this level. Every film is distinct from the other. Unlike other years, this year the race is fairly open because each film has a USP. A film like Navalny is very politically rousing. Obviously, a lot of people have very strong emotions around the film’s topic. A film like Fire of Love was a massive theatrical success and people love how it evokes romance while looking at the geological vagaries of the planet. On the other hand, All The Beauty And The Bloodshed, made by veteran and former Oscar winner Laura Poitras, is a great film. I enjoyed watching it. The fourth one, A House Made of Splinters, is an excellent classic film. All of them are great films.

Tell us what sparked the idea for All That Breathes...

Shaunak Sen: I wanted to tell a story that focused on the tone and texture of living in Delhi. In a way, it began with an interest in the greyness, the opacity, a kind of visceral tactile quality of the air in Delhi and alongside a kind of interest in human and non-human entanglement or kingship. It was both an interest in the sensorium of the city and a kind of philosophical interest in human, non-human relationships.

I started getting curious about what happens to birds when they fall off the sky because I was mainly interested in a kind of abstract triangulation of humans, birds and animals. I discovered the singular and brilliant work of the two brothers and visited them and I was amazed to see the kind of work that they have done. They were the first characters I met and then they became the subjects of the film. I shot them for three years. That’s how it started.

A moment from All That Breathes.

A moment from All That Breathes.

What were some of the key challenges in shooting All That Breathes? What did you have in mind when you started out?

Shaunak Sen: The film has two primary DOPs; German DOP Ben Bernhard, and Riju Das. We had a great opportunity to work with Ben Bernhard whose work I had always loved and admired, especially in films of Victor Kossakovsky like Aquarela. We had reached out to him and he agreed to come and shoot. Unfortunately, that’s when the pandemic struck and the country was shut down, so he had to leave in a tearing hurry and after that Riju had to come and continue shooting. By then a very specific and particular language had been created by Ben and it was taken forward by Riju, who developed it further.

The soundscape of the film is so precise, especially the detailing in the sound of inanimate objects. Tell us about it...

Shaunak Sen: We had a wonderful sound recordist called Niladri, who also did the sound design. He contorted the sound into different shapes while the human characters were all lapeled and there was a boom mic on the side. The sound of kites, their calls and their feathers ruffling were very important. In the film, I wanted to really breathe the sense of life in the animals. For that we had to do some degree of Foley. It was done by a Foley artist in Japan.

For example, the opening shot of All That Breathes where the rats are rattling required a very intricate Foleying, which obviously was not possible to record in real life because the minute we would go closer, the rats would scamper away. For the sound that we couldn’t record, we had to use Foley.

Alongside the sound, the music also plays an important part. I gave Roger Goula Sarda, the composer for the film, two briefs. Number one, it had to initially feel like a fairytale to invoke the kind of wondrous magical aura around the kites that the brothers considered as kids. Number two, the second half of the film should feel like a fairytale gone dark. The composer used electric distortions and often sampled the sounds of the black kites and stretched them out and made them into undulating tones and that’s how he created a sense of atmosphere. It’s more like atmospherics than melody.

Is All That Breathes releasing on any of the OTT platforms or TV channels in India?

Shaunak Sen: The film has already been released on HBO Max in multiple countries and we are still trying to figure out which OTT platform in India we will release it on because HBO Max has not come to India yet. Hopefully, we’ll try and make an announcement sometime soon.

Which documentary filmmakers inspire you? Can you name a few of your favourite documentary films?

Shaunak Sen: Cinematographically, in terms of the camera work, All That Breathes has used long pans and languorous shots and tilts. It’s not a regular observational verite documentary; instead, it is aesthetic, cinematic, poetic and uses a different kind of style which is inspired by the styles of a few filmmakers like Victor Kossakovsky, Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr.

What project are you working on next?

Shaunak Sen: I’m still very immersed in an extremely hectic Oscar campaign and I tend to be a very slow thinker, so I don’t have a ready answer. But some themes have been marinating in my head and I might turn towards fiction but it is not yet certain. After the Oscars, I’ll unplug for a bit and write something fresh.

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