The documentary All That Breathes is set in New Delhi and tells the story of two brothers, Nadeem and Saud, attempting to save a species of bird called the black kite (Milvus migrans) with their makeshift hospital’s limited resources.
Shaunak Sen directed the Academy Award-nominated film, and its cinematographers, Ben Bernhard and Riju Das, were kind enough to talk to Screen Speck about their process.
Screek Speck: Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. I watched All That Breathes earlier this week and I loved it. You’ve had quite the year with this project; you’ve done everything from Cannes to the London Film Festival to Sundance – how do you feel?
Bernhard: When the phone call came from Shaunak Sen at the end of 2021 and he said that we are in competition at Sundance, we were both like, “Can you believe it?” This was beyond our expectations. We never thought something like this would happen and that we would make it to that sphere with this film. Then everything beyond that was just surreal. It’s beautiful that this film gets recognition and is seen out there, and we’re humbled to be seen.
Das: What can I say? The film has had a magical journey, right? Starting with Sundance, Cannes, and the Academy Awards, it’s just been so magical. But while all of this is great for the film, what is also fantastic is that all this helped the film reach as many people as possible. The fact that I’m sitting in Calcutta in India and I’m talking to someone from Germany, Egypt, and the USA at the same time, is just…I mean, who would have thought of that while shooting the film? It’s truly fantastic.
Screen Speck: Shaunak Sen said that he didn’t refer to All That Breathes as a nature documentary. From your point of view, who do you consider the main characters of the story? Is it the birds or is it the people? And how did that affect the way that you filmed the movie?
Bernhard: I think the main protagonist is life itself. It’s not one creature – it’s all of us. As some of the protagonists say – those who have a human voice: “One shouldn’t differentiate between the species and all that breathes.” I think that was the idea from the beginning. It’s not only poetry about nice people doing good things, and it’s also not [only] a wildlife talk about one specific animal, and so on. It’s also not a political film. It’s not this, it’s not that. It tries to be all of it or nothing at all. It tries to capture interconnectedness, how we all live together, and how whatever we do has an effect on other things around us.
This was the idea of the film and we tried to find a way to translate the ideas and concepts that Shaunak had in mind that we found in books to translate into visual spheres. Then, together, we developed the language [for] how to reveal even the smallest creatures against the backdrop of our urban life in this mega city, Delhi, and to capture the ecological doom that envelopes that city. At the same time, we tried to do that in an aesthetic and poetic way, to show the beauty of coexistence even in polluted places. And to honor everything with fresh eyes and honor and meet each creature with the same value and approach no matter if they’re human or not human – not looking on them from our perspective,
Das: I think the question itself has the answer. Is it about humans? Or is it about animals? It’s about everything. It’s about everyone. I think it’s about an elephant. It’s about an ant. It’s about me, it’s about you. It’s about all of us.
Screen Speck: There are quite a few animals in this film. How do you approach a shoot when you’re working with subjects that, to a large extent, you can’t control? What precautions do you have to take?
Bernhard: Shooting animals in the open needs a lot of flexibility. I’m not sure if we had to protect ourselves a lot. It’s mostly about being aware and open to who you film. I mean, if I go to someone’s house and I meet them for the first time, I don’t go in and start shooting and I don’t enter in a rude way and it’s the same with animals. We just treated them with respect. We observed where they are and took the time to approach and spend time with them. I think we have to bring a lot of patience, most of all, rather than protection, and to become one of them. Especially with the birds, we spent a lot of time with them till they get used to us. Then, in this cage from the documentary, they’re in a kind of hospital and they’re all injured. So, they moved more than normal. Obviously, they are skeptical about who you are, what you want from them, what this camera is, and what kind of creatures we are, so we gave them a lot of time to adapt. If someone is nice to me, I let them in my life, and the same happened with the birds, when we were nice to them and treated them with respect, they invited us to come closer.
Screen Speck: Benjamin, this isn’t your first time being a cinematographer in a project where nature takes the lead. How did you prepare for this shoot? Was it similar to that of [your previous film] Aquarela?
Bernhard: in general, I like to shape reality or play with the form of a documentary outside its normal confines and find a style out of the individual topic. But [director Viktor] Kosakovskiy’s idea of Aquarela was to let the water guide the film. So, the style of the film evolved out of what was happening. But with All That Breathes, when I arrived, we talked and talked about the concept we found in books and we had to translate it visually. It’s actually a style I’ve been developing for several years; luckily, it fits and we use it to render obvious scientific ideas.
There was a fixed style present that became the tool to tell the story the way Shaunak wanted, which was different from Aquarela. Because Viktor Kosakovskiy is not the best person in planning things – he needs to experience them while you do it, and not before. You can talk endlessly with him before, but the moment we arrive, everything might change because it’s about how we feel in that moment, and that’s what we try to capture in the camera. That’s what I love about cinema in general. If I do fiction, I try to create an emotional atmosphere; and, if you’re doing documentaries, you try to capture the moment or the atmosphere, and you try to transport it with your tool into the screen to make the audience participate. You try to think about how to guide this. But I think in both documentaries, the idea was to film with an open heart and to film not intellectually, but to have intellectual topics. I think the idea is always to have a lot to think about before and after the film – but not during. Because during the film you should feel.
All That Breathes is available to stream on HBO Max.