SXSW Film Review: Crows Are White

Buddhist monks doc morphs into journey of self-discovery

Crows Are White

Does Crows Are White work because of its design, or in despite of it?

On second thought, “design” may be too intentional a word to describe this documentary-slash-personal-narrative; by director Ahsen Nadeem's own admission, he abandoned the project for years at a stretch and never intended to insert himself into the story.

One gathers the film’s original intention was to straightforwardly document life inside a secretive Buddhist monastery on Mount Hiei in Japan, where “marathon monks” are famed for walking for punishing lengths of time on the path to enlightenment. In voiceover, Nadeem explains he’d been trying to gain entry for years, while also hinting at some inner turmoil of his own. These opening minutes serve real podcast vibes – the narrator who becomes a character, the ostensible subject refracted to serve a thematic point – but a podcast can’t deliver such luscious, foggy greenscapes as this.

Crows Are White moves in mysterious ways, and I’m loath to spoil any of its turns. But there’s no avoiding its central character, Nadeem, who’s the voice in your ear from minute one and soon a corporeal presence onscreen too.

Born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents and relocated first to Ireland and then America, Nadeem looks a little like Arrested Development’s Tony Hale. In his more blundering moments, he recalls that actor’s most famous creation, Buster Bluth. (Early on, he’s guilty of a journalistic no-no so boneheaded it made me gasp out loud.) He appears fairly inept at the job at hand – to make a film about these fascinating and inscrutable monks – and about as hapless when it comes to his personal life (he’s caught between the strict Muslim observance his parents expect of him and his love for a woman outside his faith). Sometimes a comic presence, frequently a sympathetic one too, Nadeem dominates the film, for better and for worse. I questioned some of the choices he made as a filmmaker putting himself front and center (especially in a climactic confrontation staged for the camera), and that scrutiny itself becomes a kind of parallel track to experience the film.

Nadeem’s personal drama is all very watchable, but what saves the film from total solipsism is another character – as in, “he’s a real character.” Through some miraculous combination of shoe leather and serendipity, Nadeem meets Ryushin, a low-level monk with a sweet tooth and soft spot for heavy metal, working in the monastery’s gift shop. Ryushin is just as lost – no, make that searching – and the tender bond between filmmaker and subject is the making of the film. Whatever his original aim was, what Nadeem has achieved here is a sometimes-irritating, often-enthralling picture of faith and the messy ways humans try to reconcile the pursuit of holiness with our pesky earthly desires.

Crows Are White

Documentary Spotlight, World Premiere
Monday, March 14, 11:15am, Alamo Lamar
Wednesday, March 16, 12:30pm, 1pm, Violet Crown Cinema
Online: March 12-9am-March 14, 9am

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