The directorial debut of Ahsen Nadeem, Crows are white (review in IE here, scroll down), recounts his personal journey of bridging the gap between himself and his parents while seeking enlightenment from the isolated Buddhist monks who live on Mount Hiei outside of Kyoto, Japan.
Growing up in a traditional Muslim household, first in Saudi Arabia and then in rural Ireland after the start of the Gulf War, adult Nadeem struggles to reconcile who he is with the version of himself that his parents expect him.
Shot over five years, the resulting documentary is both quirky and intimate, focusing primarily on the director and several key supporting characters: Kamahori (a monk attempting a rigorous physical challenge in order to achieve the highest rank in the Tendai order), Ryushin (a young monk who doesn’t quite fit in and befriends Nadeem), and Dawn (Nadeem’s non-Muslim partner whom he fears his parents will find out about).
The day after his world premiere at this year’s SXSW, the director spoke to IE about his film, his family, and what we can all learn from our new favorite monk Ryushin.
misa shikuma: How did you first find out about Tendai Monastery? How was the process to get their approval to film them?
Ahsen Nadeem: I came across some photos that a photographer had taken of their rituals but there was really very little to find online, especially in English. The physicality of what they were doing was so unique, [that] I was immediately curious to explore this world. And what little I learned about their severity spoke to me because I grew up in a truly orthodox religious environment. I spent a year trying to contact them by phone and email, and once I ran out of luck the next year, I thought I’d just go to Japan, climb the mountain and knock on the doors of the monastery. Initially the community was very guarded, but during this year I came back two or three times and finally they let me in.
MRS: So they saw that you were really serious about it?
A: Yes. What’s funny is that one of the monks actually asked me, “Are you aware of that documentary by an American, David Gelby, who made Jiro Sushi DreamsI was like yeah sure, this is a great movie. And he said, ‘I hope your movie does what this movie did for sushi in our monastery.’
MRS: No pressure! Watching the film, it’s interesting to see the parallels between the rituals of the monks and the practices you grew up with. What did you know about Buddhism before you started contacting them and filming them?
A: I didn’t know Buddhism very well. I have always been interested in figures of faith. What interests me most is the tension between the need to conform to a tradition and modernity. And here, these monks carry on traditions that have existed on this mountain for more than 1,200 years!
MRS: Has this production process prompted you to review or integrate religion into your daily life?
A: It was a gradual process. While there, I realized that I was just grasping the surface of things – of their practice, their rituals, their internal state. Also, I try to answer questions like what does it mean to represent faith? How to capture an inner state and put it on the screen? At some point I realized that the only way to get below the surface of their practice was to look below my own surface. And that’s when I really started to examine my own relationship to faith.
MRS: Ryushin is one of the most comedic and compelling elements of the film because he is so candid and unfiltered. When you were filming it, were there any concerns about everything it revealed? (For example, the Tendai monks have a ritual in which they spend ninety days of solitude in darkness, supposedly without sleep; Ryushin happily recounts how he slept at least eight hours a day during his trial).
A: I have always been more concerned than him. We talked about it at length – his participation and what it would mean for the monastery and what the consequences would be. He always felt he didn’t really have a voice and that this film would allow him to share his story and hopefully inspire others who might find themselves in a similar situation. I really sympathized with him. Everyone can relate to trying to have a sense of belonging, being respected and being seen.
MRS: Are you still in contact with him?
A: I screened the film for him two weeks ago. I think he was pleasantly surprised at where the story went, and I think it’s rare to see a subject change so drastically over the course of a movie. For me, it’s so beautiful to witness his journey and the arc of his character. But also, it is rare that the lives of filmmakers are so profoundly transformed by the experience. I feel very lucky and privileged that the monks allowed me in and that Ryushin had such an impact on my life!
MRS: Have other monks in the monastery seen it before? How do you think they will react?
A: At the moment we are not allowed to go to Japan due to [COVID] and I hope that this summer I will be able to go there and present the film to them. I hope they will embrace it. The film shows both sides of the monastery, and I think one of the most beautiful things is the impact it had on the life of a non-Buddhist person.
MRS: How was it when you were shooting on the mountain after Kamahori? (He is completing a ritual involving walking for 1,000 days over a period of seven years, and if he fails, tradition dictates that he commits suicide). I imagine trekking with camera rigs and the like is not easy.
A: I think what’s most impressive is seeing Kamahori move through the environment and this space with so much grace and elegance, and how myself and the crew were the complete opposite of that. You realize that it really takes a lot of discipline, commitment and physical athleticism to be able to accomplish something like this. He walked the whole duration for seven to eight hours [a day] while we were filming at one point and then rushing out, getting in our cars and going to the next point to capture him walking through the frame. In the movie, you kind of see us fall apart trying to keep up with him.
MS: I liked that you included that because it really highlights how tough and extreme it is – what they are doing on this mountain. One of the lessons I learned from your personal journey throughout the film was unpacking – or fighting against – the ways in which religion had lingering negative effects on you. Maybe he even traumatized you. How aware do you think you were of this before making the film, or was the production process a form of therapy?
A: I think I was still struggling with those questions and that’s one of the reasons I went there, and then those things came out of the subconscious into the conscious. And just being in that environment triggered a lot of responses. What interests me is that I can see that having certain expectations that live up to a painful ideal can be traumatic, but it can also be inspiring. When I see Kamahori complete his seven-year journey, it’s inspiring and I feel like it empowers many of his followers, whether in the monastery or just lay people, to look within. and to transform. Because it’s a normal human being doing this extraordinary thing. But then, when you look at me or Ryushin, having to live up to that painful ideal…it can lead to trauma.
MRS: What do you hope people take away from the film?
A: I think everyone will find a different meaning according to their experiences. I know Ryushin taught me the importance of staying true to yourself and trying not to change yourself to meet other people’s expectations. Like, yeah, he’s a Buddhist monk, but he drinks and eats meat sometimes, and that’s okay! And having no religious guilt because that’s how life is.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.