A new film exploring the connection between humans and birds has just been released in cinemas. All That Breathes, a documentary by Dogwoof tells the story of two brothers who devote their lives to protecting the black kite, a majestic bird of prey that’s essential to the ecosystem of New Delhi.
The black kite sits in the Accipitridae family alongside the red kite, golden eagle, and hen harrier, and is thought to be the most abundant species in the group.
It is smaller than the red kite, with a less forked tail, and has dark plumage without any rufous. Like its cousin, it has a distinctive, shrill whistling call and is often seen gliding on thermals in search of food.
Black kites are opportunistic hunters and will prey on birds, bats, fish, and rodents, as well as household waste and carrion. In colonial India, the British Army gave them the nickname ‘shitehawks’ due to their reputation for coprophagia and their habit of stealing food from officers’ plates.
The current global population is estimated to be about 6 million individuals, but in some areas numbers are declining due to poisoning, shooting, water pollution, and overuse of pesticides.
All That Breathes follows Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud who have set up a makeshift wildlife hospital in a basement in Wazirabad to care for these birds which are falling from the polluted skies over Delhi at alarming rates.
The brothers were raised watching relatives toss meat up for these birds of prey, a centuries-old ritual practised by Muslims, who believe that feeding kites will expel troubles.
But another kind of kite that is regularly flown over the streets of Delhi has had a devastating impact on the black kite population.
Competitive kite flying is a popular sport for the city’s inhabitants, in which the aim is to cut your opponent’s kite string with your own. Unfortunately when a black kite collides with a kite’s sharpened or glass-coated string, it cuts through the bird’s body like a knife.
Nadeem and Mohammad first came across an injured black kite nearly 20 years ago, but when they took it to the local wildlife hospital they were turned away. The owners were strict vegetarians and could not care for the raptor as they would be unable to feed it meat. So the brothers had to put the bird back where they found it.
Over the years they came across many more black kites which they were unable to help, until one day they could stand it no longer, and enlisted a vet to help them treat a bird they had discovered.
Under their care the kite survived and since then the ‘kite brothers’ have helped over 20,000 raptors including Egyptian vultures and fish owls. Most of their patients though, are black kites, with an estimated 70 percent injured by kite strings. They are particularly vulnerable as they tend to fly low and make circuitous routes.
Attempts have been made to ban the practice of kite-flying but a plea earlier this year was rejected by the high court in Delhi on the grounds that it is a ‘cultural and religious activity’.
The court did however instruct the police to ensure strict compliance with the National Green Tribunal’s ban on the sale of Chinese synthetic kite strings coated with powered glass known as “manjha”.
Directed by Shaunak Sen (Cities of Sleep), All That Breathes explores the connection between the kites and the Muslim brothers who help them return to the skies, offering a mesmerizing chronicle of inter-species coexistence.
The film premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival where it was met with critical praise.
Daniel Fienberg from The Hollywood Reporter described the opening shot as “the most beautiful and unnerving thing I saw at this year’s virtual Sundance”.
He went on to say “Salik brings a childlike enthusiasm and inquisitiveness, instigating conversations that frequently have an apocalyptic slant half-grounded in the real world”, and summed up the film as a “tiny marvel of a documentary, it’s a little and a lot all at once”.
All That Breathes opened in cinemas nationwide on the 14th October. You can find show times and locations and book tickets here.