SXSW Review – Crows Are White

A Buddhist monk, shrouded in night, donning the bright white medieval garb of his sect, wanders up a mountain with a simple lamp. He is contemplating the journey ahead – he will walk the equivalent of the earth’s circumference to attain enlightenment. His face is expressionless, focused, detached. I am sure film maker Ahsen Nadeem’s face betrays a much more uncertain attitude in this moment behind the camera. In his documentary Crows Are White, Nadeem seeks to wrestle with the responsibilities of his own religious upbringing through the severity of another’s – but ends up finding peace and friendship in sharing ice cream and heavy metal music instead.

Nadeem discovered the Buddhists of Mt. Hiei while working for the New York Times and became fascinated with the extremity of their practice, feeling a resonance in his own upbringing as a Muslim. Fleeing Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War, Nadeem’s family immigrated to Ireland where he attended a Catholic boarding school. Removed from his homeland but still bound to his parent’s customs, he began to feel the tension between the life he was living and what was expected of him. Eventually moving to America, Nadeem became so separated from his parent’s expectations that he hid his engagement and marriage to a non-Muslim for years – particularly, the years he filmed this documentary.

The Tendai Buddhists are a secretive and guarded sect, thus Nadeem had to travel to Japan several times to request documenting the journey of Kamahori, a monk who was setting out on the Kaihogyo – an extreme seven year walking practice that results in attaining enlightenment after walking as many miles as the circumference of the earth. Nadeem tells us, “I had heard stories about desperate men who had turned up to the temple gates and persisted after weeks of being told to go away, so I found I had to employ the same strategy.” This resilience would become a necessity as the filming process also stretched out over seven years through many fits and starts.

During this arduous process, however, Nadeem’s film began to take a new shape as he befriended a lowly monk working one of the more public facing areas – Ryushin. A pleasant and decidedly nonchalant presence, Ryushin was spending his time at the monastery writing gift shop calligraphy while his personal life was filled with eating ice cream and listening to Slayer. He admitted to being a bit depressed and aimless but he was finding contentment in the in-between. Nadeem was immediately taken by him.

When he started the film with a focus on Kamahori, what fascinated Nadeem “was the physicality – it was so unique to be walking for days, and weeks, and years at a time. In Islam you can attain heaven if you’ve done a certain amount of good deeds in your life – in Buddhism you can experience enlightenment on this earth if you do this very particular practice. For me, that’s fascinating. That’s what made me curious about exploring his journey and trying to understand – so few monks have actually successfully completed this, he’ll have a unique perspective on life, relationship to time, to religion and I was eager to learn from him specifically.” But what he found was that his own doubts and fears about his faith continued to haunt him.

Hiding his love of a non-Muslim woman from his parents, Nadeem was unsure of where to draw the line of being true to himself and being true to the faith he has inherited. As he attempted to navigate this tension, his film transformed from being specifically about Kamahori into being about his friendship with Ryushin and the courage he gained from him. The film becomes a fascinating exploration of the tension of tradition and living practice, the liminal space between severe devotion and the fluidity of lived experience. “It’s always fascinated me how in people of other faiths and religions there’s a common thread in how we navigate the tension between tradition and modern living. It’s always interesting to me how Muslims respond versus Buddhists – I have a lot of guilt because I’m not able to adhere the ways my tradition or my parents expectations of me. Buddhists, in my experience, are very comfortable dealing with these contradictions. It’s partly because in Buddhism the concept of hell and punishment are different.”

Throughout the film, he reflects on how the faith he received at birth filled him with fear of hell and uncertainty of his parents reactions to his life choices. As it unfolds, his friendship with Ryushin is central to unworking this fear, giving him courage to own his own experience and, in the last scenes of the film, to tell his parents about his love and the marriage that he fearfully kept from them. In a decidedly modern and pluralistic fashion, this friendship and personal growth occurs as he comes to know Ryushin through a mutual love of sweets and Ryushin’s adoration of extreme metal music.     

While Nadeem presents the extremity of the Tendai Buddhists brilliantly, it is in documenting this friendship that this film really shines. In it, the audience is treated to mutual growth, as two people of wildly different experiences learn to live a bit deeper into their own contexts. For Nadeem, this was enlightening – “I’ve always considered myself as a person of faith, even though I don’t pray five times a day. In time, I’ve become more comfortable accepting for myself my limitations and what Islam means to me. That’s something Ryushin taught me – the funny balance between the sacred and the profane, life isn’t so clear cut.”

Nadeem hopes that “a universal theme people will take from this film is how to stay true to yourself in light of the expectations of others.” Towards the end of the film, Kamahori shares that it is custom for him to leave a bit of his walk unfinished as a reminder that the journey to enlightenment is never finished – a lesson Nadeem found great solace in. For Nadeem, “it will take a lifetime to unpack these complications – what I took away from the experience is learning how to live with and not hide away from them. I’m much more at peace. I’ve learned from Ryushin the importance of staying true to yourself.”

The film serves as a powerful reminder that in our spiritual walk, it is just as important to pay attention to where our own hearts are being led as it is to what is instructing us – leading us not simply on our own paths but on our journeys, together.