SXSW 2022: Crows are White

Directed by: Ahsen Nadeem
Distributed by: TBA

Written by Taylor Baker

85/100

Ahsen Nadeem’s first feature-length film is a pointed but rambling (in the best of ways) tale of contradictions, persistence, love, and meaning. Though faith is central to the film it’s secondary to the concerns of the filmmaker. We often see documentarians stretching to make a film they’re shooting interconnect with their own lives. Rarely do we see it come off as sincere, necessary, or meaningful. Which makes entries in the genre like Steve James’ “Stevie” and Bryan Fogel’s “Icarus” have great resonance with viewers and critics alike. In “Crows are White” Ahsen commingles his efforts to document the mountain top monastery against his own conflict of loving a woman from outside his faith while trying to maintain the respect and love of his parents. Which gives breathing room for him to express his conflicted feelings on Islam. It’s a  personal tale that shows the filmmaker deeply engaging with his subject and subject matter throughout the film as well as after it’s completed on the cutting room floor.

While cataloging a monk’s journey to walk a distance equal to the circumference of the globe to become a living Buddha Ahsen forgets to mute his phone during a ceremony and is kicked out of the monastery as soon as it rings. Being kicked out leads him to befriend a monk from the monastery named Ryushin, who loves metal, Apple products, and Sake. He’s a harsh contrast to the restrictive and harsh demeanor of the monks we’d spent the early portion of the film with, showing the internal contradictions of not just Ryushin as a monk, but an institution like the monastery itself. This speaks to the background narrative of Ahsen’s looming marriage to Dawn while having weekly phone calls with his mother in which he feels he can’t tell her that he is in love and getting married over the fear of being disowned.

The film owes much of its clearness of voice and visual quality to both the Director of Photography Matthew Nauser and Editors Kimberley Hassett and Weston Currie. The ease that they’ve arranged beautifully engulfing images of the mountain and the monastery blending effortlessly into a Skype call in a hotel room, or a visit to see Ryushin and his family at the foot of the mountain demonstrates a narrative comprehension that is not frequently seen. The sometimes flawed handheld cinematography provides a human touch that suits the mood of the film and Ahsen, its director and central character. 

Torn between culture, family, and tradition. “Crows are White” is a story of personal acceptance and one of the finest documentaries you’ll encounter this year. 

“Crows are White” was screened as part of the 2022 edition of the SXSW Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on film on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

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