Changing Cinema: A portrait of humanity in ‘All That Breathes’

A drawing of brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad from the documentary “All That Breathes.” The brothers’ heads face each other in profile, and between the heads, looking straight at the viewer, is the head of a back kite.
(Sasha Matthews • The Student Life)

“Delhi is a gaping wound. And we’re a tiny Band-Aid on it.”

This line is uttered by Nadeem Shehzad, one of the main subjects in “All That Breathes,” a 2023 documentary about bird conservationists working through pollution in New Delhi, India. Nadeem and his brother, Saud, both struggle throughout the film, dealing with a cramped working space, failing infrastructure and a government that refuses to support or fund their cause.

Through all of this, “All That Breathes” unravels Nadeem and Saud’s humanity, highlighting how life can adapt and grow from dire situations. One shot in particular encompasses this theme: the wrinkles of a fallen tarp are covered in water from the previous night’s monsoon, and the camera’s zoom reveals a microbiome within the puddles. Through this shot, we see the similarities between the microorganisms in the puddle, the birds that Nadeem and Saud heal and Nadeem and Saud themselves.

All three of these species –– humans, animals and insects –– have evolved in a world of industrialization, climate change and global violence. The birds in Delhi should not have to live in landfills as a result of pollution, nor should the organisms find a home in unclean rainwater. Nadeem and Saud live a similar existence, expressing their love for bird-healing, but with a somber understanding that their work wouldn’t exist in an ideal world where birds would not have to be rehabilitated at all. 

The reason why “All That Breathes” works is not because it offers audiences a glimpse into the turmoil of Delhi, but because it paints a well-rounded image — or series of images — of how species exist, adapt and perceive their surroundings today. The film portrays humanity as a spectrum, centering the ebb and flow of emotions we experience in every moment of our lives. To ignore the destruction we have caused is a fundamental failure in understanding humans, but to only view us as our destruction is another more cynical shortcoming. 

Understanding humanity’s complexity, as shaped by contexts and conditions, is the only way to fix the issues it has caused, not only for humans but for all organisms on Earth. We are not meant to purely view Nadeem and Saud’s work with pity, nor should we blindly commend their work to be an act of resilience. These two truths exist at the same time, and their interplay is at the core of every minute in the film. Viewers must resist the binary of optimism and pessimism, lenses that restrict this film’s viewing to be an example of humanity’s restoration or a symptom of humanity’s failure. 

“All That Breathes” spoke to me on a personal level. As an Asian-American, I used to yearn for positive depictions of my culture because many people perceived us through narratives of conflict and war. In turn, I internalized all the trauma that made me human, using a reductive lens to view myself and others that shared the same identity. As I am evolving and gaining a deeper grasp on what it means to be human, I understand that truths don’t compete but co-exist. I am right to be angry at the stereotypical perceptions of my culture, but that does not mean I should erase the pain and oppression of my ancestors with the hopes of reclamation.

Nadeem and Saud are living in a country that constantly reminds them of their subjective human condition — mounting nationalism from the Indian government, poor air quality, failing infrastructure and bird-healing that proves both noble and hopeless in the context of global exploitation. However, the depth of Delhi’s wound should not minimize the importance of them as a Band-Aid, and more importantly, as individuals who experience the universal tendencies of love, care, joy and justifiable anger against the systems they live in.

Peter Dien CM ’25 is from West Covina, California. He enjoys listening to midwest emo, watching stand-up and playing Go with his roommate.

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