“Crows are White” is a documentary that covers a lot of ground, including filmmaker Ahsen Nadeem‘s personal struggles with faith, family, and love. It’s almost like two films in one, and both work together to create of the more compelling documentaries I’ve seen in a while. It explores the filmmaker’s experience and history with religion in his life, dating back to his growing up in a strict Muslim household to seeking enlightenment within a secretive Buddhist sect. It’s a thoughtful project that shares not only the joy that a person’s faith can bring to their lives, but also the power religion can have over personal relationships (and the collateral damage it can do).
Ahsen is struggling. He’s has a secret girlfriend (now his fiancée) that he’s kept hidden from his parents for six years. Scared that mom and dad will be furious that he plans to marry outside their faith, the guilt is torturing him. Eventually, Ahsen marries. Three years later, and the secret is eating not only at him, but also his wife. The film follows his journey to a secluded monastery in Japan, where Ahsen hopes to find enlightenment. There, he is given unprecedented access to the rituals and inside workings of the Buddhist sect.
The most fascinating aspect of the documentary is the footage captured inside the monastery. Listening to the monks explain how they reach a higher plane through feats of physical endurance (walking miles and miles and miles until their feet are bruised, bloodied, and battered) is disturbing, especially when their religion expects them to push their bodies to the limit — and if they give up or fail to finish, they are instructed to commit suicide.
Some of the monks refuse to answer questions, especially when they don’t like the content (it’s very telling to watch the reactions of some when they are asking questions like if they have any regrets, or if they’ve ever been in love). They get angry and annoyed often, and Nadeem himself even points out that “nothing feels worse than being yelled at by a monk.” But it’s when he finds an outcast, a monk who is comfortable living with his contradictions like enjoying Slayer eating meat and ice cream instead of strict meditation and rituals, that an unlikely friendship develops.
It’s a terrific film that’s packed with an elaborate story, which is to be expected when it was shot over five years on three continents. The structure feels a bit different than typical documentaries, but the narrative flows well. There’s a humanity to this film that’s touching, with a lot of joy and heartbreak along the way. Nadeem walks a very difficult and highly personal path with his film, and what a pleasure it is to share in his journey.