SXSW 2022 Review: Crows are White

Traditions are hard to break, especially if a particular population has been practicing them for more than a century. And with said traditions come very strict rules, which filmmaker Ahsen Nadeem realizes as he spent years trying to make his first film, Crows are White.

For 1,200 years, this monastery has been home to monks who perform some extreme rituals in order to reach full enlightenment. One includes being unable to sleep or lie down for 90 consecutive days, while another is known as the seven-year-long marathon – in which a monk has to walk every night for 1,000 years. If they fail, they are required to take their own life. Other forms of reaching enlightenment include taking a 12-year vow of silence.

Nadeem travels to Mount Hiei to capture their rituals and practices in action, which are all astonishing and eye-opening to hear. Plus, the scenery in Japan that Nadeem is able to capture is breathtakingly beautiful.

He is then turned away and forbidden to enter after he forgot to silence his cell phone. His film is no more, and Nadeem explains how there were times when he completely abandoned the project. If you are ever curious as to how seriously Buddhist monks take their practice, this is one easily accessible way to witness it.

As it appears, Crows are White could have just ended right there with no conclusion in sight – due to Nadeem being unable to capture what he wanted. But the documentary takes an unexpected twist and becomes about the filmmaker himself in addition to his journey in trying to capture the rituals of the monastery.

The sudden detour becomes a welcome surprise, as Nadeem dives deep into his own personal life. A Saudi Arabian whose family immigrated to Ireland, Nadeem then moved to America to fulfill his dreams of filmmaking. But he also comes from a very strict Muslim upbringing. It was one that he didn’t entirely agree with, and he has been too afraid to be open and honest to his parents – fearing that they would disown him.

One person in Japan who will talk to Nadeem is a monk named Ryushin. But he doesn’t quite follow the rules by the book. He’s a monk who enjoys ice cream and listening to heavy metal bands like Slipknot, Slayer, and Megadeth. It’s his form of escape, and, as Ryushin puts it, it’s what he identifies with the most. The friendship between Nadeem and Ryushin is heartwarming and keeps the film going, even as Nadeem bounces back and forth between what he can get at the monastery; his friendship with Ryushin; and wondering if his parents will accept him for who he truly is.

Crows are White is sure to trigger memories for viewers, especially those who had strict upbringings. The ability to break free and find yourself but also wanting to appease your family is strongly showcased here as well. At times, it can be difficult to watch as Nadeem tries to be more open to his parents. And while Nadeem mixes personal story and passion project into one, it’s done without feeling unbalanced and off-focus.

Crows are White is a fascinating journey of self-discovery, the strong bond of friendship and love, and understanding to see things from different perspectives. It can be tough, especially if it’s dealing with family and years of traditions that are never once thought to be broken. And this documentary does a great job of encompassing it all into one 97-minute package.

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David Wangberg

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