Through Their Eyes

Impact-oriented environmental filmmaking remains a lonely battle

A still from the film All That Breathes, released in 2022. It tells the story of the brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, who run a wildlife rescue clinic in north-east Delhi.
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01 March, 2023

A tiny turtle moves through garbage, as the camera languidly pans to follow its slow crawl. In the background, the city’s traffic hurtles across relentlessly, a blur of noise and unrestrained movement. It is a comparative snapshot of pace, the chaos of a city pitted against a dawdling animal invisibilised by it. In another scene, a vertical pan of a busy neighbourhood, its somewhat disorganised life is contrasted by the leisurely stroll of a pig across a dimly lit ravine. Shaunak Sen’s Oscar-nominated documentary All That Breathes expands the geography of everyday existence by candidly dragging into view the understated, yet fragile, presence of our other neighbours—animals. 

Kartiki Gonsalves’s The Elephant Whisperers ditches this dystopic texture for a more alluring juxtaposition. In a scene from the film, Bellie, the middle-aged caretaker of a young elephant calf, Raghu, asks him to lie down in front of her. “I will spank you if you lie on me,” she says, as if to her child. Nominated in the Documentary Short category at the Oscars, the film focusses on the unusual, yet reassuring, dynamic of a family of elephants and their human caregivers, the kind of serendipitous co-existence we seek but rarely find in our everyday lives.  

Sen’s film tells the story of the brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, who run a wildlife rescue clinic in north-east Delhi, where they save Black Kites that fall from the city’s grey skies. Unlike the verité tendency of eulogising courage and kindness, Sen’s film mines, alongside the discomforting greyness of an inhospitable city, the many personal challenges of their own lives. Gonsalves’s film, on the other hand, follows the more straightforward template of romanticising the unlikely but cheerful bond between Raghu and his human caregivers, Bomman and Bellie. 

A still from the film The Elephant Whisperers, released in 2022. The film explores the bond between Raghu, an orphaned elephant calf, and his human caregivers, Bomman and Bellie.