‘Front-row seats to the apocalypse’: Cannes doc takes on Delhi pollution, sectarian violence
A still from Shaunak Sen's "All That Breathes", part of the Cannes Film Festival's special screenings. © Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

India’s prolific movie industry enjoyed pride of place at the Cannes Film Festival, starring as the film market’s first-ever guest of honour. FRANCE 24 spoke to director Shaunak Sen about his stunning New Delhi-set documentary “All That Breathes”, which screened at the festival this week.

The festival’s 75th anniversary has been celebrated as a homecoming, a much-needed reunion after two years of lockdowns and virtual events. It’s also been a time of farewells, with at least two Cannes stalwarts bowing out this year.

Pierre Lescure, the festival’s president for much of the past decade, is passing the baton to Iris Knobloch, the former head of Warner Europe – an appointment that has raised eyebrows among French cinema workers wary of seeing the industry’s crown jewel fall under American influence.

Perhaps more significant for industry workers is the departure of Jérôme Paillard, the head of the all-important Cannes Film Market, who is bowing out after a whopping 27 years at the helm.

When Paillard joined the organization back in 1995, the Marché du film was, in his own words, “a basement with some porno booths”. Since then, it has grown into the world’s largest film market, a sprawling maze where buyers and sellers from all continents discuss film rights and hash out production deals.

The market counted around 2,000 delegates when Paillard stepped in. This year there were more than 12,000 scattered across 360 physical booths – with around half as many attending online.

China was one notable absentee – ostensibly due to Covid restrictions, though the screening of a hard-hitting documentary on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests last year is rumored to be the real cause of Beijing’s no-show. Other countries have sent their largest delegation yet, most notably India, the market’s first-ever “guest of honour” this year.

Both Cannes and New Delhi have made much of their concommittant anniversaries, the festival’s diamond jubilee coinciding with the 75th anniversary of India’s independence.

India sent a high-profile delegation to the Riviera, including a government minister and the country’s ambassador to France. Inaugurating its pavilion on the Croisette last week, the Indian delegation hailed cinema as “one of the most potent instruments of soft power of our country”. Paillard, for his part, spoke of a “renewal of Indian cinema”.

The potential is indeed immense. India's film industry produces up to 2,000 movies per year, more than any other country. The country's 1.4 billion inhabitants, growing middle class, huge theatre network, and sizable global diaspora give the sector a fanbase that is the envy of the world.

“We’ve been making movies for 60 years and it’s really nice to be recognized on such an international platform,” the Indian model, actress and activist Nidhi Sunil told FRANCE 24 in an interview in Cannes. “I wasn’t here with a brand – I was here as ‘brand India’. And that’s something that’s truly special,” added fellow Indian actress Pooja Hegde, who shoots three films a year in as many Indian languages and has 20 million Instagram followers.

New Delhi’s stifling smog

India’s turbulent politics, and the immense challenges facing the world’s largest democracy, form the backdrop to the most high-profile Indian film at Cannes this year: Shaunak Sen’s hauntingly beautiful “All That Breathes”, which won the grand jury prize at Sundance earlier this year. It is the second film in as many years to touch on the catastrophic consequences of India’s economic growth at breakneck speed, after Rahul Jain’s “Invisible Demons” premiered here last year.

The latter film focused on the tangible experience of climate change: the unbearable heat, the lack of water, the smog so thick that cars and rickshaws keep their signal lights on at all times, hoping other drivers will spot them. It was a powerful indictment of the way unbridled capitalism has precipitated cataclysmic changes in the lives of ordinary people – its ominous warning finding an echo in the blistering heatwaves that have scorched India and neighboring Pakistan in recent weeks.

In “All That Breathes”, Sen has opted for a more subtle approach, weaving elements of the climate emergency, nature, politics and human brotherhood into a “dense tapestry” depicting life in his hometown of New Delhi. Set in a predominantly Muslim district of the Indian capital, his documentary focuses on two brothers who have dedicated their lives to rescuing birds injured in the city’s chronically polluted skies.

Nadeem and Saud tend to hundreds of injured kites, birds of prey that drop to the ground in droves because the air is so filthy they crash into each other or collide with kids’ paper kites. Wildlife Rescue, the charity they founded two decades ago, is like “a tiny band-aid on a gaping wound”: a dingy basement crowded with more injured birds than the brothers can handle.

In the background, sectarian violence triggered by a controversial citizenship law spreads across the city, threatening its Muslim population and adding to the sense of an environment that is both stifling and off-balance – as precarious as the power lines and equipment that regularly leave the brothers without clean air, electricity or food for the kites.

FRANCE 24 spoke to the director about the film’s message and his experience of the Cannes Film Festival.

Your film touches on many subjects, including the environmental emergency, human interactions with nature, and social strife. What was your starting point and how did you bring it all together?

We began with a clear idea of what this was not, rather than what it was. We knew this was neither a nature film, nor a frontally political snapshot of the country, nor a regular environmental documentary. Instead, it was a dense tapestry of things I’m interested in and which were very consonant with everything I just mentioned (…) The political metaphor only evolved over time because of things that happened during the shooting. It certainly wasn’t premeditated.

The brothers are more than just characters in the film; they provide its title and much of the thinking. How did you come across them?

I was looking for people who have a deep or profound relationship with the skies or birds, that’s how it began. I wanted to find the kind of metaphor for a broader ecological and social malaise. Fortuitously, the first people I met were the brothers and so I didn’t have to meet anybody else.

The minute I walked into their basement – in equal measure full of industrial decay and majestic, vulnerable birds – it had a salient bipolarity that was inherently cinematic. So I immediately got hooked into it.

Cinema has tackled the pollution crisis, in New Delhi in particular, head-on. Is there still reason for hope?

There’s always reason for hope – guarded, cautiously optimistic hope. What I find interesting about the brothers is that neither do they have a kind of maudlin sentimentality when it comes to environmental issues, nor are they constantly, bleakly spelling doom and gloom, even though they have front-row seats to the apocalypse. They have a kind of wry resilience in terms of putting their head down and soldiering on. I like that kind of attitude. A kind of philosophical disposition of calmness in the face of (…) ecological disaster.

What has your experience of Cannes been like?

It’s difficult not to answer that in clichés. It’s any filmmaker’s dream, obviously. It’s not often that you’re in a space that is sprinkled with such cinematic royalty. It’s an enormous honor and the fact that the characters, the brothers were able to come it means a lot to them, and to get a long standing ovation after the screening was a big deal for them.