When “All That Breathes” begins, it’s unclear if you’re watching a documentary or a fictional film. The camera slowly pans over the cityscape of New Delhi, patiently introducing viewers to the world captured so beautifully in filmmaker Shaunauk Sen’s documentary. And that cinematic approach to the storytelling was entirely by design.
Sen revealed during the latest installment of TheWrap’s “How I Did It,” sponsored by HBO Documentary Films, that initially he began filming the story of two brothers who capture and treat injured birds in New Delhi with handheld cameras.
“What happens is that if you’re holding the camera, it has a kind of restless, anxious quality to it,” Sen said. “We realized that the characters are such philosophers that the tone of the film had to be more contemplative and meditative.”
So Sen and his cinematographers set the camera up on a tripod with sliders so it could slowly pan back and forth, capturing the brothers as they worked and talked, bringing a “dreamy, flowy quality” to the film.
“We placed two tripods and placed a slider in the middle and the entire day we’ll just keep doing this,” Sen said, making a slow panning motion with his hands. “Because so much of the film is about the simultaneity of life between human and non-human, the pan became a very important kind of grammatical tool in the filmmaking.”
While the story follows the rescue and rehabilitation of injured birds in a city filled with pollution, Sen knew immediately he didn’t want to make the kind of documentary most might be expecting from the subject matter.
“We started out by deciding that we would not make a nature doc, we would not make a kind of frontal political doc and we would most of all not make a sweet film about nice people doing good things,” he said.
The result is a candid, emotional and intimate story of two brothers, and Sen said the key to getting usable footage was waiting for boredom to set in.
“It takes time to garner trust and gain access,” he said. “The joke in our crew is that you have to wait for the first yawn on camera. When they’re not very self-conscious, when they’re being instead of behaving in front of the camera, that’s when you know that usable material comes in. Before that, you’re just showing up every day so that they start getting bored of you and you recede into becoming the wallpaper of their lives.”