All That Breathes: Shaunak Sen on films, Trojan horses, and winning at Cannes

“Happiness” doesn’t begin to describe what they are experiencing, says Shaunak Sen. “The feeling of crossing the finish line is more and more complex. When I’m thankful and drowning, it’s a constant reminder of the intensity of the roller-coaster months.

Sen, 34, took three years to produce a 93-minute documentary that recently won the L’Oeil d’Or (or Golden Eye) at Cannes and, before that, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. All That Breaths is about two brothers, Mohammed Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, working in Delhi’s dirty basement, protecting and treating black kites and other birds struggling to breathe in the city’s polluted air.

Sen says this is a story he always yearns to tell. “Movies need to be used as a Trojan horse on climate change questions.” But fairy tales are also on the cards. Could Bollywood be ahead? Excerpt from the interview.

What’s the best thing about all of this?

Generally speaking, the process is a reward. Making a movie, imagining it, finding the images you imagined, creating the editing… that work is usually, cumulatively, extremely enjoyable. But the screening at our first physical show, Cannes, was very sacred. Nothing matches the look on people’s faces when the lights come back on. It was hardly unbelievable for the cinematographers in me to show up at Cannes. A whole bunch of my filmmaking heroes were playing in the same section. I have not yet fully processed the fact of winning the prize, but it is an extraordinary honor.

What can you tell us about the “intense roller coaster ride” of making a movie?

Leaving a poetic and abstract documentary and making an independent film is a laborious process. For this type of story that is not about the hot-button issue, you really need to have an outrageous fascination with the subject.

The story first came to me as a vague design: the dreamy gray color of a heavy hanging air laminating the city sky with black kites diving into the ground. It painted a foreboding, dystopian image of Delhi.

While doing a fellowship at the University of Cambridge in 2018, I was talking to people working in the field of human-animal geography and relationships, and this sparked the film’s idea of ​​a deeper relationship between non-human life. From there I worked backwards, looking for content that fit the theme.

Through all of this, you suddenly become the person who makes this film. There is a cross-pollination between your life and the film – your life becomes fodder for the film and the film becomes the color agent of your life.

It’s been a tumultuous three years for you personally …

I lost my father a few months ago, and it was a loss of transformation. Not only me, but a lot of people on staff suffered a deep loss. Many of us became very ill during the epidemic. These victories are also a constant reminder of this transitional phase of our lives.

Three years is a long time to devote yourself to something that could be a critical failure. The emotional risk of engaging with an abstract image is paired with it, one may feel too established, no one is interested in investing or collaborating.

We struggled with resources, and then we spent weeks sleepless nights racing to meet festive deadlines. We jumped off the cliff not knowing where we were going. It is an enormous risk when only the excellence of your image is locked to you and it is not certain.

How have the past few months changed you?

I am usually shy and secluded. But since this is not a commercial film with enormous PR, I had to do every bit of information-sharing. It is overwhelming. All of this feels dreamy and unreal, but it also comes at the expense of struggling to hold my sacred private space. That is where the ideas for my next film will emerge.

Meanwhile, I’m still in search of the mythical world of networking, where one uses smooth quips to “connect over lunch”. I believe it is important to include yourself in a subset of people who are stakeholders in your domain, but this is not something that comes to me organically so these are skills that I still need to take.

What was the reaction at home?

All these years my mother was a little skeptical and would probably reject what I was doing. The way I was doing my PhD was a source of solace and pride. (Laughs) Now, the WhatsApp groups are buzzing and she’s happy. But telling her that I have appeared in the New York Times or the Hollywood Reporter does not elicit a response in the Indian newspaper or in the Bengali media.

Are you more optimistic about the future of your cinema?

It feels like an unprecedented moment for non-Indian fiction. Writing with Fire was nominated for an Oscar this year. In 2021, Golden Eye won the title of Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing. Indian documentaries are gaining more critical acclaim at A-list festivals. I am terrified of the turn of events. However, I am not embarrassed or upset about how things are changing. Streaming platforms have helped, but one has to stay realistic. Documentary films are not sudden.

What do you do about our response as a species to the environmental crisis?

Most of the process of environmental degradation occurs during glacial. For us, humans, surprisingly or not, following this environmental erosion for decades has not come easily. Here visual media plays a powerful role. A photograph of a snail polar bear can be an influence. It is important to give emotional design to the facts. Movies need to be used as a Trojan horse for climate change questions.

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