A sign of hope

CLIMATE / Two MakeDox-screening films, 'All That Breathes' and 'Invisible Demons', look at pollution in one of the world's preeminent megacities, New Delhi - one from above, one from below.

Invisible Demons (Rahul Jain, 2021) and All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen, 2022) are documentaries about the world where climate catastrophe is not about to happen sometime in the future. It is now; a clear and present danger. They were produced before the European summer of 2022, but the heat waves, extreme drought, and frequent and intense storms that Europe is experiencing this summer make a perfect setting for their release. Both will be screened at the 13th MakeDox creative documentary film festival later this August in Skopje. The programmers made a particularly good choice, as the films well complement each other. Both are located in one of the world’s largest megacities, New Delhi, with more than 30 million inhabitants. At the beginning of the millennium, the visionary architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas claimed that megacities are not an anomaly but the future of the world. This idea has been confirmed many times since then. But watching both documentaries about contemporary New Delhi, one can see that the chaotic coexistence of the multitude of organisms also provides a fertile ambience in which solutions to the apparently helpless conditions of our world can evolve, encouraging an optimistic view that there might be after all, a way out; a ray of light.

Invisible Demons, a film by Rahul Jain
Invisible Demons, a film by Rahul Jain

Invisible demons

The documentaries have the same theme but approach it from different perspectives. Invisible Demons is a matter-of-fact presentation of the situation. The title itself might be misleading. The demons in question are not some immaterial, psychological, and therefore invisible problems torturing the mind but a very material evil causing physical harm. They are the poisonous particles of hard matter, tiny but sharp, invisible to the eye, that float in the air and damage the lungs of those who inhale them. In one year, these hidden demons killed 1,2 million people, about 10% of all deaths that took place that year in India, making air pollution the third biggest killer in the country, more deadly than smoking or traffic accidents. Testimonies of individual city inhabitants are skilfully intertwined with a general narrative: a cab driver recalls that his five-year-old son has been sick every day since he brought him to the city. The female TV presenter reveals that 50% of the lungs of all children in New Delhi have been irreversibly damaged because of pollution. The role of the TV presenter is to provide a general perspective. Unlike the director, who introduces himself as «an AC kid» and remains in the background until the end when he stoically concludes that «it’s 50 celsius outside and I am turning on the AC», the TV presenter is raising questions and demanding responsibility. This film is obviously a product of a modern, democratic India that respects journalism, women, and the young. Even the older inhabitants seem particularly enlightened, as one of them concludes, «Now, even the gods can’t help us. Only the humans can do something about this.»

All That Breathes, a film by Shaunak Sen
All That Breathes, a film by Shaunak Sen

All that breathes

Unlike the Invisible Demons, which presents the consequences of the ever more severe climate and pollution in a global metropolis from above, All That Breathes offers a look from below. The brothers Saud and Nadeem, who, twenty years ago, created a makeshift hospital for wounded kites, are fascinated by these birds’ capacity to float in the sky effortlessly. The sublime, elegant mode of kite flying is best seen from the ground, and it is here, around 10 cm from the ground, where the camera roams most of the time, patiently revealing the humble dwellings of the ordinary citizens and their noble efforts to endure the hardships of life in this megapolis. From their first discussion, when Saud wonders if the kites would attack him if he were pretending to be dead and Nadeem calmly confirms, «we are meat to them», we know that the birds’ earthly aspect is their concern. They have made it their life’s work to care for the injured black kites, meaning they are most interested in the birds on the ground, those falling from the polluted, opaque skies of New Delhi. We also learn that the kites have become crucial for processing the metropolis’ waste. Above the largest waste deposit in Delhi, there are over 10.000 kites. They eat 5 tons in 10 days and 15 tons in one month, meaning that the waste would be «sky high» without them. «Nature will always find a way to absorb waste», explains Nadeem. «Think of the city as a stomach, and the kites are like the microbiome of a gut. They eat away our filth.»

They are the poisonous particles of hard matter, tiny but sharp, invisible to the eye, that float in the air and damage the lungs of those who inhale them.

Life as kinship

In All That Breathes, too, it is the voice-over guiding the viewer. We mostly hear the two brothers, who gradually reveal their story. It was their late mother, with her fables about ghosts and holy spirits, that raised their interest in animals. «Trees, fungus, or vegetation, natural and supernatural worlds were mixed for her.» Thus, they believed that «one shouldn’t differentiate between all that breathes». It never becomes an immediate topic of discussion, but the film convincingly shows that this view might suit our times very well. We know by now that the climate disaster is at the root of famine, it makes people lose their homes and sources of income, and it is the main reason for major world conflicts. A sinister presence of conflict is felt in both films too. The Invisible Demons offers an explanation by looking to the past. We hear a farmer say he is forced to use chemicals because of the money: «My yield is 100, but with the use of chemicals, I can reach 150, 200.» And the director observes, «For the last 30 years, India had been projected to be the worlds fastest growing economy. I wonder who objectively benefits from this growth».

In All That Breathes, Saud and Nadeem carefully observe life in the metropolis and detect something else, a sign that there might be a way out, despite all our fears. «Every life form adjusts to the city now. Rats, pigs, frogs, mosquitos, turtles, insects, cows, and horses all improvise and adapt to the city», says Nadeem. His explanation is fascinating, and the film so convincingly presents his capacity to create the proximity between himself and the kites and between himself and his family that what he says is fully credible. «Evolution favours experimentation. Today urban kites are more innovative than rural kites. Or even earlier generations of kites. This is also a form of natural selection. Humanity is now their natural environment.» Symbiosis of all living beings, the awareness that «life itself is kinship», that «we are all a community of air», and the capacity to adapt – might this be the way out? Two films are not enough for such a bold conclusion. But it is good to see that such seems to be the news these two documentaries are bringing from the front line.

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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