Go for it. Make yourself the story. Crows Are White is about director Ahsen Nadeem’s propensity for lying. Wild thing for it to be about. The film is not high-concept. The director will not, to the best of our knowledge, lie to the viewer. Mostly he is lying to himself and as a consequence, lying to his family. The film takes place on some gorgeous Japanese mountains where some monks live. That’s somehow not the subject of the film, even with the incredible, singular access granted. What could have been a fascinating film about a village of monks and one monk who lives outside the system, with some broad personal parallels, becomes a film about Ahsen Nadeem marrying a non-Muslim woman and then not telling his parents about it. He wants to study the monks and this settlement with 1,200 years of history but really he just wants to tell his parents that he’s been hurting for several years by not sharing his life with them.
Great therapy idea. Small idea for a documentary. Perhaps the initial frustration is what’s already there. That Nadeem is granted such rare access to an exclusive culture. That the outdoor shooting is really quite pretty. That he happens upon just the right monk to mirror his own internal struggle with inherited religion and the search for the other self, not defined by where you’re from, but where you’re going. He befriends the outsider monk, who loves Slayer’s heavy metal records and ice cream sundaes. This monk aspires to be spiritually devoted but he’s also bored as hell. He sits in a booth all day copying calligraphy. Lowest on the hierarchy, he is simply bored and not spiritually committed.
The other monks are so incredibly devote. To reach enlightenment, they must walk every day. They must walk every day until they’ve covered about the circumference of the earth. If they stop walking, they must commit suicide. As the filmmaker says, it seems like too much work. He convinces them it’s worth including them and finds all kinds of ways to irritate his hosts, who have extended so much gratitude and allowed him to witness the history of the mountain. They allow him into a seance no outsiders are ever allowed to see. His phone goes off. The respect for the culture shown is embarrassing and tactless, continually getting in trouble and interfering with monks who seem to walk doubly fast just to get away from the crew filming them.
If we can get around the approach, there is something here. We do want to root for the filmmaker and his relationship. We do feel for his partner who has held on for years, not knowing if he was serious about having a family and including her in his. The relationship Nadeem builds with the quirky monk is peculiar and cute. The framing on the monastery, in the fog of the Japanese mountains, is immaculate. There’s a sense of another world, that we’re experiencing things few people get to see. There is also the surface level exploration of religious devotion and what we gain from complete absorption, but more importantly, what we stand to lose.
Crows Are White is an average self-seeking documentary looking for something to be about. It never quite crests and finds its subject. When folks make documentaries, an ending is never guaranteed. A subject and access to it is also not guaranteed. Over the course of several years and across multiple continents, Nadeem welcomes us to his personal journey. It is filmmaking as personal therapy. We can see why this was a good experience for him. We can see how it was frustrating for many of the monks involved. To be framed this way almost as a counterpoint to their own existence and purpose. To be consistently interrupted and seemingly pestered for one man’s personal journey of discovery, that has nothing really to do with them. But there are bits and pieces here. There is a setting and a way of life worth capturing. It’s a shame that isn’t the center of the film.