On Mt. Hiei in Japan lives a secretive sect of Buddhists who push their bodies to their limits in order to achieve enlightenment. Seeking guidance, documentarian Ashen Nadeem travels to the monastery in hopes of chatting with Kamahori, a monk currently engaged in kaihogyo (a 1,000 day challenge). If Kamahori misses a single day, he must immediately commit suicide by hanging or disembowelment. It’s unclear why Nadeem selected this specific sect of Buddhism or why this monk within it as the place to get the spiritual answers to his ethical crisis, but what is clear by the end of the cinematic journey is that the path to enlightenment, on the small or grand scale, requires faith and determination. Without these things, you won’t succeed at even the small things.
From the beginning, the audience is clued in that Nadeem is a liar. He calls himself a good one, too, before we’ve even been introduced to Kamahori. This immediately calls into question everything we’re about to see as truth. One often presumes that because one is watching a documentary that what we observe is truth, but that’s because audiences tend to forget that what we see is only a small portion of footage that’s been edited together into a (hopefully) compelling narrative. Nadeem’s conflict is that he’s in a relationship with a non-Muslim woman and plans to marry her, yet his very religious parents don’t know that he’s dating anyone. He’s devised a system to keep them in his life without them being aware and it’s been slowly tearing him apart. His journey to speak with Kamahori is predicated on Nadeem’s belief that the monk, someone who’s sacrificing so much, risking so much to be one step closer to full enlightenment, will be able to guide Nadeem through his lies. For his part, Nadeem is far more honest with us, the audience, than he appears to be with himself or others, making quite a bit of Crows raw and painful to observe, even as it reveals certain contradictions which exist among the supposed holy or just. This, to me, is the most fascinating aspect of the entire documentary. It’s not that Nadeem’s story isn’t compelling, it’s that he uncovers a series of strange contradictions that are not uncommon across different faiths.
Most people will find reasons to justify their actions. If you’re of the Christian faith, you’ll create an excuse for supporting football teams despite the fact that footballs were previously made of pigskin, something the Bible forbade. If you’re of the Jewish faith, there’s a push toward preservation after centuries of near-obliteration, somehow losing the connection that preservation shouldn’t mean the obliteration of others. Through the accidental meeting of Ryushin, a monk working at the gift shop of the temple, Nadeem stumbles (or is it destiny?) onto someone like himself, someone lost seeking answers. Through Ryushin we learn things about the monks that Kamahori would likely never share, bringing about a shift in perception regarding these secretive monks and their practices, opening the door to a greater perspective about the ways in which outsiders perceive faith and commitment. Consider this: Ryushin points out that monks are not supposed to drink, yet, he shares a bottle of sake with Nadeem. When pressed, Ryushin states that other monks do drink, despite the declaration, his retired monk grandfather overhearing and not arguing. In contrast, later in the documentary, Kamahori explains that the last 25 days of the 1,000 day challenge are left unfinished as a reminder that the journey toward enlightenment is never actually finished. When one compares these two revelations, one (not drinking) seems like the kind of rule one breaks because the quest to remove all desire from the self shouldn’t require removing oneself entirely from the world, while the other isn’t so much a rule-break as a symbolic gesture toward a greater understanding of what enlightenment means. On paper, both are egregious infractions against the code, yet are somehow in keeping with the spirit of it. This is primarily subtext, of course, but there’s an argument to be made that Crows are White is an exploration of the truths we tell in order to maintain peace with ourselves as it is how faith and the journey it takes you on matters more than the rules of the faith. This isn’t to imply that one shouldn’t take part in organized faith or that each system is full of hypocrisy and contradiction (whom among us isn’t?), it’s that Nadeem’s search for answers took him all over the world when all he had to do was look inward and go forward.
It’s because of this that it’s hard not to consider Nadeem a selfish person. His entire quest is built upon finding a way to help himself shortcut a way out of the ethical quandary he’s placed himself into. That Nadeem seems to be aware of this without stating it outright is impressive, enabling the audience to see each attempt at communicating with Kamahori, each moment in which his friendship builds with Ryushin, as merely another step on his quest to his answer. We know that Nadeem is an experienced liar, we know that each conversation we’re privy to is in service to his lies, and yet not a single scene feels like a put on. Without stating his intent, Nadeem allows us to see who he believes himself to be (a selfish person) as he faces that head-on. There’s a frustration, though, in the fact that Nadeem never seems to, on-camera at least, acknowledge how his journey to speak with monks is a selfish act. Instead, he’s so focused on speaking to someone he deems more in touch with the energy of the world, he doesn’t stop to think if such a person could possibly conceive of his problem. This is, in my estimation, why the accidental relationship with Ryushin matters more than any sequence with Kamahori.
On the whole, Crows isn’t an investigation of the Buddhist sect, so the majority of what we learn is from the answer Ryushin provides regarding practices and behaviors. Through him, we see a similar battle which exists within Nadeem, except Ryushin seems far more in-touch with his emotional and physical well-being. By being aware of the paradoxes he’s created within him, as poet Speed Levitch says in the film Waking Life, “I would say that life understood is life lived. But the paradoxes bug me, and I can learn to love and make love to the paradoxes that bug me. And on really romantic evenings of self, I go salsa dancing with my confusion.” In this way, the revelation that Nadeem becomes friends with a dessert-eating, technophile, metalhead monk is far less of a paradox than one expects when we consider that life is complex and full of juxtaposed notions. Can one truly be enlightened if they are so far removed from everyday life? How this intersects with Nadeem’s own separated life is brilliantly revelatory and the kind of idea which a different director would make hay out of while Nadeem keeps it a quiet admission.
On its surface, Crows are White is entirely about exploring truth, while, underneath, it’s about how perception shapes truth. These are ideas we tend to forget in our everyday lives, which is why we end up in so many interpersonal conflicts. Our fear of the possibilities make taking any action a seeming impossibility, so much so that traveling to Japan from Los Angeles and spending years trying to speak with a monk all seem like reasonable things to do instead of telling the truth. That the title itself is a reference to a conversation retold to Nadeem in which a master tells his students that crows are white knowing that his students can’t contradict him speaks to this idea that truth is perception-based. While the film in its totality may not change how we feel about the filmmaker, we may certainly change how we feel about the notion of truth.
Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
SXSW Screening Information:
*Weekday, March 11th, Screening @ 7:45pm CT, Alamo Lamar C
*Weekday, March 12th, On-line Screening @ 9am CT
*Weekday, March 14th, Screening @ 11:15a CT, Alamo Lamar B
*Weekday, March 16th, Screening @ 12:30p CT, Violet Crown Cinema 1
*Weekday, March 16th, Screening @ 1p CT, Violet Crown Cinema 3
Final Score: 4 out of 5.