Journeys are a recurring motif in Crows Are White, filmmaker Ahsen Nadeem's existential, meditative, surprisingly funny documentary, which spans five years and three continents. Its intended purpose — to profile a monk walking a marathon every night for seven years — begins with the director undertaking his own journey to Kyoto's Mount Hiei, where his subject's isolated Buddhist sect resides. And yet, by Nadeem's own upfront admission, all he can think about is what he's left behind. This intriguing push-and-pull, of a man caught between two extremes, gives the documentary its underlying tension even as it smoothly transitions between the personal and the profound. That all the journeys in this 100-minute-long documentary will eventually translate into an internal shift is no surprise, but Nadeem does a fine job of keeping you on his side even as his personal concerns occasionally overshadow his sense of professionalism and his search for meaning occasionally veers dangerously towards self-absorption.
Snatches of this become apparent even early on in the documentary, when, having shown up to the Mt. Hiei monastery, Nadeem's interest in the monks is dictated solely by how they can help him. Questions about their regrets and whether they've ever been in love are smokescreens for him to elicit advice about his own nagging doubts. Nadeem, a Muslim, has been hiding his non-Muslim girlfriend from his parents for years, and hopes that this excursion will nudge him towards a resolution. It's telling of the director's myopia that his chosen subject, Kamahori, the monk who must walk the equivalent of the Earth's circumference or commit suicide, has taken a vow of silence and thus cannot give him the answers he seeks. At one point, Nadeem is even kicked out of the temple for failing to silence his phone's ringtone.
Things take a turn when he runs into Ryushin, who runs a calligraphy stall on the temple premises. The lowest-ranked of all the monks, Ryushin eats meat despite his vow of vegetarianism, can't abide silence and craves material comforts. In him, Nadeem finds his mirror image. Both men lead double lives, but only one is comfortable with his contradictions. The filmmaking style shifts to reflect this gradual acceptance as the striking, glossy compositions of Mt. Hiei's swirling mists give way to a more naturalistic depiction of reality.
While the documentary sees Nadeem look to religious structures to make sense of his personal conundrum, what actually emerges is a searing portrait of the opposite, as details of the director's upbringing speak to the rigidity of religion and the way it can entrap instead of embrace. Conversations with his parents provide an insight into the tendency of the older generation to ascribe divine meaning to life events, leaving the younger generation scrambling for signs in moments of crisis. The punishing exercises that the monks engage in are normalised in their quest for peace, but the documentary tempers its critique of religion by depicting how even the gentlest of yearnings have their drawbacks. In its funniest scene, Ryushin speaks evocatively about wanting to be a sheep farmer in New Zealand, only to appear visibly shaken when he encounters a rowdy herd of sheep, later confessing to Nadeem that he's actually never met any before.
The film derives its title from the story of a monk whose master once told him that crows were white, a factually incorrect statement he wasn't allowed to dispute. What initially alludes to the rigidity of religious diktats is gradually reframed as the plurality of perspective. Ryushin's contradictions as a holy man make perfect sense —why be so fixated on what happens in the next life that you forget to make this one meaningful?
Vast in its scope, yet intimate in its execution, the documentary accrues its power so gradually that by the time Nadeem sets up the climactic confrontation with his parents, the overarching framework of religious dogma pales in comparison to the grip this tale of familial love and loss exerts.
"If you could be a dessert, what dessert would you be?" Nadeem asks Ryushin early in the documentary. It's as inane as any of the other questions he's asked the other monks, but his friend takes it seriously, finally settling on a creme brulee. Sometimes, Crows Are White implies with this scene, it's not about profound answers. Sometimes it's just about being heard.