An awe for the rituals and rigorous austerity of monastic routine has characterised numerous documentaries that in recent years have sought to honour a daily Buddhist way of life under threat, be it from globalising technology, as in Thomas Balmès’s Bhutan-set Sing Me A Song (2019), or political repression, as in Jin Huaqing’s 2021 Dark Red Forest (2021), shot on the Tibetan Plateau. Ahsen Nadeem’s Crows Are White, screening at the Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival in Tel Aviv, is a markedly different kind of film. Its director is very much in the frame as he visits a monastery on Mount Hiei in Kyoto, Japan, seeking insight into the spiritual devotion of its resident Buddhist sect, whose monks are tasked with dangerous rituals of extreme physical endurance as a way to reach enlightenment.
Far from exoticising their practices, Nadeem’s approach to the film is irreverent, even comical. This is not out of disrespect for the practitioners — in fact, he has an almost obsessive determination to learn something profound from them. However, his preoccupation is not with purity of faith but rather the intersection of life and religion as a dilemma of the deepest . . .
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