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Hot Docs Fest 2022: 'Crows are White' and Spirituality is Gray

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

Director and narrator Ahsen Nadeem begins his self-reflexive and often unpredictable Crows are White in quite a fascinating way. Right out of the gate, he proclaims that he is an excellent liar. At that moment, he leaves the audience questioning why he would say such a thing – especially considering the vulnerable and personal nature of the story he proceeds to tell.

Throughout the course of the film, the decision makes more sense as he demonstrates this skill on the screen for the audience to witness firsthand. He is less of an unreliable narrator than a liar of the compassionate variety, and, admittedly, a pretty good one at that. He has his parents fooled that he is an observant Muslim, actively in search of a Muslim woman to uphold tradition. In reality, he is dating a non-Muslim, and has been hiding it from them for many years.

As the film ramps up, Ahsen takes us to a Japanese Buddhist monastery on a spiritual venture to question the morality of the secret he’s held. The film subsequently takes a surprisingly comedic approach that follows Ahsen and his newfound bond with one of the monastery’s Monks, Ryushin. Similar to Ahsen, Ryushin finds himself detached from a lot of the demanding laws that his religion requires of him. He frequently sneaks away to drink, eat sweets and headbang to his favorite American heavy metal bands.

Their quirky, albeit formidable friendship is the biggest reason why this film is instantly lovable and immersive. Although there’s a lot of room for heavy content considering the themes of religion and spirituality at hand, Ahsen’s approach to the story rings very much of How To With John Wilson. He uses a very dryly comic narration approach that is equally self-aware and satirical.

Ahsen’s unique approach to storytelling is incredibly effective, touching on elements of his journey at a brisk and easy-to-digest pace. That choice contrasts quite well with how empathetically he portrays his subjects. He warms up the audience with his warm nature and charming wit. By the time we reach the film's deeply emotional and tear-inducing climax, we have already followed Ryushin and Ahsen through several years of their friendship in classic hangout-film style. It allows audiences to feel like longtime friends of the subject by the time the credits roll.

Crows are White is a truly special film, introducing a confident and bold artist to the contemporary documentary cinema canon. The only person who could articulate such a balanced story firsthand is the charismatic Ahsen Nadeem, and he's made what will likely be considered one of the year's greatest films as a result. Coming from someone whose only credits prior to this film are as a producer on the short films of Ari Aster, it is an astounding feature debut. Not only did his film move me to tears, but it gave me a new outlook on spiritual and familial love. If that’s not good cinema, then what is?




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