A documentary film about bird rehabilitators in India’s capital city is among the five nominees for the best documentary feature film of 2022. All That Breathes was released in theaters in October and is slated to be available on HBO Max sometime this year (a date hasn’t been announced).
If it wins, it will become just the second bird-themed documentary honored by the Academy Awards after March of the Penguins, released in 2005. (Over the decades, a few bird-themed animated films have won Oscars for best animated feature or best animated short, including Happy Feet in 2006 and Piper in 2016.)
I’m not surprised by today’s news. After all, All That Breathes was the first film ever to win the documentary prize at both the Cannes and Sundance film festivals, and I’ve seen nothing but rave reviews from film critics.
The praise is absolutely earned, and if the movie wins, I’ll be thrilled for everyone who made it. It’s a gorgeous film with amazing cinematography, and we as the audience can’t help but root for its protagonists, brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, who run a wildlife clinic on a shoestring budget in crowded New Delhi. Bird rehabilitators around the world do heroic work that tends to get overlooked, and the fact that bird rehabbers are at the center of an Oscar-nominated film is incredible.
With all that said, as I pointed out in my review of All That Breathes a few months ago, the film offers a misleading narrative about why so many birds, especially Black Kites, “fall from the skies” and require care from Nadeem, Mohammad, and their assistant Salik. The implication offered on screen is that air pollution makes the birds sick, and that explanation has been repeated in just about every review I’ve read about the movie. But according to a 2020 New York Times story about the brothers, the birds become injured because people in the city fly kites made with manja – “cotton thread coated with colorful layers of crushed glass.” The glass slashes the birds’ wings, leaving them unable to fly.
I don’t know why director Shaunak Sen left this detail out of the film’s narrative. To me, it’s a big omission because air pollution is a huge problem in one of the most polluted cities on the planet. But it seems to me that people could make their kites with something other than crushed glass, something that would not threaten the city’s birdlife nearly as much. All That Breathes doesn’t even hint at this possible solution, however, which seems like a missed opportunity.
If you get a chance to see the film, I definitely recommend it. Personally, I’m a bit disappointed, but it’s great that a highly decorated film shines a light on bird rehabbers.