Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Devoted to a double life

RELIGION / After decades of living a secret life, a filmmaker travels to a Japanese monastery in an exploration of truth, faith and love.

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.

Crows Are White, a film by Ahsen Nadeem
Crows Are White, a film by Ahsen Nadeem

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 contradictions. He wins us over with vulnerable sincerity, even as he gracelessly crashes around, compassless.

Far from exoticising their practices, Nadeem’s approach to the film is irreverent, even comical.

The topic could not be more personal for Ahsen. He is the son of devout Muslims and was born in Saudi Arabia, immigrating with them as a ten-year-old to the small Irish town of Cavan when the Gulf War started. Growing up caught between the codes and demands of two hugely different ways of life, he became more distant from his parents and learned to hide the things he did to belong and feel a sense of fulfillment in western society that they would regard as transgressions. The compartmentalisation of this double life only intensified as he reached adulthood and moved to the United States, dating and eventually marrying Dawn, a woman who he fears would never meet their approval since she does not share his faith. Three years into the marriage, his family still does not know about her existence. According to very strict guidelines, his parents married forty years ago in Pakistan and still adhere to the notion that marrying an unbeliever will land one in Hell eventually. As the pressure of secrecy begins to adversely impact Ahsen’s relationship with Dawn, the need to reconcile the contradictions in his life comes to feel more urgent than ever — but he is at a loss over how to go about it, and in a desperation of sorts, looks to the monks of Mount Hiei as potential holders of the unlikely key (reaching out to an Imam would be uncomfortably close to home, he admits.)

Crows Are White, a film by Ahsen Nadeem
Crows Are White, a film by Ahsen Nadeem

The human condition

The documentary itself, we soon realise, has a structuring capacity that, in requiring its own narrative propulsion and conclusion, is a tool that Ahsen is able to grip onto to find a way, in halting moves, out of his stasis and crisis of identity. His first visits to the monastery seem relatively fruitless, and on several occasions, he is booted out for insufficient respect for protocols (during one ritual, his mobile phone goes off.) He finds it hard to find common ground with Kamahori, the monk he has arranged to shadow as he executes an extreme ritual on the path of his practice, walking a marathon every night on pain of compulsory suicide should he fail (it doesn’t help, that Kamahori has taken a vow of silence, so cannot, initially, discuss anything.) However, by chance, Ahsen strikes up a conversation with another monk, Ryushin, a calligraphy practitioner who works in the monastery gift shop and entertains a fantasy of farming sheep in New Zealand. Ahsen finds in Ryushin’s more lax and conflicted attitude to the monastery’s rules a sort of mirror and sounding board for his own doubts and unclear boundaries between worlds. Ryushin has not outright rejected his grandfather’s wish, a retired monk, that he take over the family temple one day. Still, he is also not averse to hearty intakes of steak and alcohol and is an avid fan of heavy metal (in one scene, Ahsen accompanies him to a Slayer concert.) Crucially, he is relatively at ease with himself within these contradictions. He refers to certain hypocrisies, or discrepancies between rhetoric and action, at the monastery (no monk can really go day after day without sleeping, as some rituals dictate, he points out). Ahsen takes inspiration from his unashamedly honest, pick-and-mix approach to doctrine but does not give up, either, on circling back to Kamahori, to try to get to the bottom of why he is willing to go so far, to die even for enlightenment, and whether he must navigate doubt.

In this open-minded, genuinely uncertain film, which refreshingly does not seem to have pre-written the answers it wants to find before it sets out, contradictions are not gathered as finger-pointing evidence of inauthenticity. Rather, they are acknowledged as intrinsic to the human condition, which is never all or nothing, but a little of everything — love, faith, tradition, and gloriously batty idiosyncrasy.

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Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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