A first-person film that documents one filmmaker’s lifelong quest to reconcile ancient religious doctrines with the messy realities of modern life (translation: it’s about a guy from a strict Muslim family who wants to marry his secret white girlfriend), Ahsen Nadeem’s “Crows Are White” borrows its koan-like title from a story about a Buddhist monk who was taught never to question his teachers, even when they said things that were objectively wrong. Nadeem’s wonky but winning film, by contrast, invites people to pick it apart at every turn. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says at the start of a simpering voiceover track so constant that it feels like the missing lyrics of Logan Nelson’s lushly composed score, “I’m a fantastic liar. But I’m trying something new here — I’m going to try to tell the truth.” By the time the movie was over, I only half-believed him.
On the one hand, there’s no denying that Nadeem was lying to his Pakistani parents for a long time before he began to work on this project (which would take almost seven years to complete), just as there’s no denying that we ultimately see him find the courage required to tell them the truth. On the other hand, Nadeem’s film makes it hard not to be skeptical about how he got from A to B.
What did he really learn from those long months that he spent on the hills of Kyoto’s Mt. Hiei, obnoxiously hounding a super-masochistic sect of Tendai monks for any wisdom they might be willing to share about the relationship between self-denial and enlightenment? Did he sincerely not expect that his personal life would become so entwined in the film he wanted to direct about religious sacrifice, or did he direct the film knowing — even if just in the back of his mind — that the only force powerful enough to make him confront his parents would be the need for a good ending to his debut feature?
I have my suspicions, and I watched “Crows Are White” from a wary distance because of them. There’s an abiding sense that Nadeem is only it for the ‘gram — particularly since his film is slow to reveal the very personal stakes behind its entertaining docu-journalistic façade — and his neediness sews doubts into everything. His admits that he’s not a Buddhist, and that he only went to Japan in desperate search of a way out from his double life, but Nadeem’s unfamiliarity with the religion along with the urgency of his need to glean something from its disciples makes it hard to take his awed descriptions of the Tendai rituals at face value.
Take, for example, his badgering fascination with a venerated monk named Kamahori. Sworn to a vow of silence, Kamahori is participating in something called the Kaihogyo, which requires him to walk the length of a marathon every night for seven years or die trying. It’s easy to understand why anyone would be inspired by such a figure, just as it’s easy to appreciate how Kamahori’s unfathomable endurance test resonates with the filmmaker’s own experience of being raised by parents who enforced religious edicts despite their occasional discomforts (and even invented arcane superstitions to keep their son from straying as he grew older).
And yet, Kamahori is such an extreme example — and so amusingly unhelpful as an interview subject — that it immediately seems as if “Crows Are White” is more compelled by him as a movie character than a role model. Nadeem often exacerbates the same whiff of cultural tourism that his tenacity should help to absolve, and it can be all too easy to forget that he spent two whole years of his life convincing the monks to let him film them at all.
But sift through the theatrics of his approach, and stomach the sense that Nadeem is gilding the lily at every chance he gets, and you’ll find that “Crows Are White” takes flight as the self-portrait of a man who’s sincerely trying to find peace with the various people he is, loves, and wants to have in his life. Things pick up once Nadeem strikes a friendship with a lowly young monk named Ryushin, who inherited certain religious obligations from his father’s side of the family, but finds just as much meaning in heavy metal and ice cream cakes as he does in Buddhist chants. The kinship between these two self-divided men is so palpable that Nadeem doesn’t need to overstress it, just as there’s no faking the ecstasy splattered across the young monk’s face when he and the filmmaker go to a Slayer concert together.
The sincerity of Nadeem’s mission and the strained lengths through which he tries to accomplish it even begin to complement each other as “Crows Are White” turns its focus to the filmmaker’s partner and parents, and not only because the scene where Nadeem’s cell phone starts ringing in the middle of a sacred Tendai ritual is as painful as anything the monks have to do on that mountain. It’s one thing to hear about his parents’ devotion to their religious tradition — and to assume that their faith became an even more valuable lifeline to their past after they immigrated from Saudi Arabia to Ireland during the Gulf War — but it’s another to see it for yourself.
The last third of Nadeem’s film couldn’t be more dramatic if it were scripted in advance, and yet its Hollywood-worthy ending convincingly validates whatever Nadeem had to do in order to arrange it. Did he make this film, or did this film make him? “You can achieve anything if you’re willing to die for it,” someone says about the often fatal rites that take place on Mt. Hiei. But making a documentary about it seems more fun.
“Crows Are White” premiered at SXSW 2022. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.