Friday, September 16, 2022

CIFF ’22: Crows are White

If Ahsen Nadeem had set out to make a film about the Dalai Lama, His Holiness would have made him feel like the most import person in the world during his interview. Instead, he set out to document Kamahori, a monk from an unusually severe and spartan Japanese monastery on Mount Hiei, who cannot talk to him because of his vow of silence—and probably wouldn’t have given him the time of day, if he could. However, there is one frustrated, heavy metal-listening monk who will talk to him. Regardless, Nadeem certainly needs a good talking-to throughout his documentary, Crows are White, which screens during the 2022 Camden International Film Festival.

Nadeem is personally conflicted, because he loves a non-Muslim woman, whom he will soon marry, but he is afraid to tell his strict Islamic parents (who happen to live in Ireland). As he pursues the silent Kamahori, viewers soon suspect he is really trying to divert himself from his real and pressing problems. To some extent, he finds an understanding friend in Ryushin, a low-level monk stuck with all the monastery’s most mundane duties. For Ryushin, monastic life is a family tradition. He is frustrated in his desire to do good works, but cannot leave while his parents are still alive.

After Nadeem marries his fiancée and three years pass, it becomes obvious he is really the subject of his film. Initially, Nadeem does not inspire confidence as either a subject or a filmmaker. Honestly, I hereby absolve anyone who checks out after his cellphone starts ringing during one of the monk’s most physically demanding ceremonies. Seriously, that kind of unprofessionalism is just disrespectful. However, those who stick it out, might start to warm to Nadeem, if they accept him as a serial screw-up.

Ultimately, there is something compelling about the double life he leads with his wife and his parents. There are also some brutally uncomfortable scenes that justify his fears. Ryushin is a sympathetic sounding board for Nadeem, but the film very definitely has more to say about the tensions traditional Muslims and their more liberal family members than Buddhism
  of any variety.

Crows are White
is such a messy, unpredictable documentary, much like Nadeem’s own life, it is hard to say whether it really works on its own terms or the viewer’s. However, Nadeem closes all the loops and gives us the big pay-off confrontation we are waiting for. It is a real shaggy dog film, but there is something there. Recommended for the Islamic-interfaith themes rather than the Buddhist elements, Crows are White screens virtually today (9/16) through Sunday (9/25) and in-person tomorrow (9/17) as part of this year’s CIFF.