CINEMA

Documentary Review

CROWS ARE WHITE (2022) 

Director: Ahsen Nadeem
Release Date: SXSW 2022 
Runtime: 97 Minutes

THE PREMISE:

"After decades of living a secret life, a filmmaker travels to a strict Japanese monastery in search of guidance but the only monk who will help him prefers ice cream and heavy metal over meditation. Crows are White is an exploration of truth, faith and love, from the top of a mountain to the bottom of a sundae."

OUR MOVIE REVIEW:

Chances are that some time in your life, you have uttered a lie. Lying can be nasty business, but lots of things can be. People’s motivations to lie will vary by context. There is something to it though that makes it so universal. 

 

Crows are White is a documentary about a lie while simultaneously lying to us directly. Its main story, or better put, it's “A story”, is following the nuance and minutiae of buddhist monks in Japan as they ascend their ranks of monkhood via rigorous painful trials. But even at the core of that story, people are lying and are being lied to. 

 

Director Ahsen Nadeem takes a big risk with this documentary. The risk is he tells two stories in one and neither of which are particularly comfortable stories. The “A story” has Nadeem and crew filming in and around a monastery in Japan. He is hyperfocused on following a particular monk who is working towards the title of living Buddha. The challenges that face Nadeem include tiptoeing around the protocol the mons give him. He needs to remain a respectful distance despite all of the access they grant him. After a few unintentional hiccups, including an ill-timed phone call with the ringer turned on, Nadeem is booted from the monastery. He gets access again when he befriends a low-level monk. This monk not only speaks to him, but invites him into his life outside of the monastery. These adventures include attending a Slayer heavy metal concert and indulging in desserts. But like Nadeem, the monk realizes that to truly ascend in the ranks, he cannot keep living this secret life. 

 

The “B story” is Nadeem seeing his own path through the looking glass, stifled and stalled by the lies he tells himself. 

 

TIme for some context. Nadeem’s family adheres to Islamic dogma. They are traditionalists in every sense. After moving to Ireland during his youth, and eventually to the United States for university, Nadeem becomes more Westernized. He finds a partner who he loves but also who isn’t Muslim. This doesn’t jive with his family’s expectation that he will find a nice Muslim girl to take home to them. So, he marries in secret. Nadeem goes to great lengths to disguise his marriage and for years his parents are none the wiser. Like his new monk friend in the Japanese monastery, Nadeem realizes he is just buying temporary happiness with his deceit. This strains his marriage. This confuses his parents. “Why haven’t you found someone yet? You should be married by now.” his parents say. 

 

The dilemma he faces is always present. How can he choose? The woman he loves is not of the faith he was raised in, and this is against all tradition and expectation. Which is a fact that his parents never fail to bring up whenever they appear on screen. Nadeem feels the pressure, realizing he cannot do this forever. The big turning point of the documentary is when Nadeem revisits his monk friend after some significant time away. His friend has turned himself around and has become truly committed to being the best monk he can be. It should be noted that the monk is also following a family road, his grandfather being a monk too. 

 

I won’t spoil how it all wraps up. At some point, the charade has to drop. The balancing act between religion, family and love is tenuous. Nadeem walks along a precarious path, slowly realizing that the truth will come out, and painfully predicting how that truth will land. 

This film is a bit wobbly. The time jumps can be a little nauseous. I would argue that this is necessary, as living a lie probably isn’t a smooth road to walk down. 

 

The shots used around the Japanese monastery and in Ireland are breathtaking. Quite often, Nadeem will hold a shot and let the atmosphere linger. Instead of a fly on the wall, the viewer feels a bit like the elephant in the room. The uncomfortable but necessary tone works here. The music works better. Especially the very last musical piece in the final shot. It might be hard to explain what catharsis and release means to someone. But Nadeem effectively illustrates what it means to him. HIs risks for “Story A” and for “Story B” both pay off at the end. You’ll know it when you see it. Lying is ultimately just conflict avoidance. Hence the title of the film. Crows are indeed not white. But suggesting that they are means you aren’t living your truth. Nadeem shows us that no matter the conflict, it's always better to lace up the boxing gloves and get in the ring.

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OUR VERDICT: