As Crows Are White begins, and for most of its running time, Ahsen Nadeem, its director and central onscreen subject, is keeping a secret from his mother and father. Across the many miles that separate them from their oldest child, all they want is for him to find a nice Muslim girl and settle down; Dawn Blackman, the woman Nadeem loves, is not Muslim.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he announces to the audience in the opening seconds of his tender and often quite funny documentary. “I’m a fantastic liar.”

In order to keep the charade going with his folks, who live in Ireland, the Los Angeles-based Nadeem has two phones: “one for my life, and the other for my parents.” That’s dedication. But beyond lying to his parents, Nadeem is exceptionally good at lying to himself, a reality that viewers will glean well before it hits home for him.

Nadeem isn’t afraid to look foolish or lost in Crows Are White, a film that abounds in lovely oddities and gently loony surprises. His initial focus, and the place to which the first-time filmmaker repeatedly returns over five years of shooting, is a monastery atop mist-enshrouded Mount Hiei, near Kyoto, Japan.

‘Crows Are White’: Film Review | SXSW 2022

There, the loveliest surprise is the friendship he forms with a young, low-ranked and mildly disgruntled monk named Ryushin, who harbors the dream of being a sheep farmer in New Zealand, where he once studied, and whose predilections include elaborate French sweets and the music of Slayer, Slipknot and Megadeth. “Heavy metal,” the genial monk says, “represents my crying heart.”

As to why Nadeem, neither a Buddhist nor a meditator, spent two years seeking permission to visit the Tendai monks, who pursue enlightenment through acts of extreme physical endurance, he offers only broad explanations. Having long since abandoned the religious training of his childhood — and now “leading a double life” — he’s intrigued by the sect’s devotion to spiritual truth and hopes that its enlightened members, particularly Kamahori, a monk well on his way toward becoming a living Buddha, can help him sort out the mess of his emotional life.

The monks’ ascetic practices include sleep deprivation and a thousand-day walk. “Seems like a lot of work,” Nadeem notes at one point, an example of the offhand wryness that keeps the film from falling into the realm of unendurable navel-gazing.

Another example: the time his cellphone starts ringing during a rare opportunity to witness a sacred ceremony, prompting his monastery handlers to boot him off the mountain and back down its single winding road. “I could’ve sworn my phone was on vibrate,” he recalls in voiceover.

Ryushin is alone among the monks in his willingness to engage with Nadeem in conversations about personal feelings. He’s also a charming debunker of some of the mythology about the austere Tendai practice. In different ways, the two men are dissatisfied with their lives.

Ryushin feels trapped in a job he doesn’t like, a sense of responsibility for his parents and grandparents weighing upon him. His affection for his grandfather, a retired monk who has Alzheimer’s, is reflected in a few sequences that are as affecting as they are unforced.

He doesn’t profess to have words of wisdom for the conflicted Nadeem, who fears that telling the truth to his parents will estrange them forever, and who knows that not telling them the truth will send Dawn packing. But as with any true connection between people, the way Ryushin listens is its own form of wisdom.

On a return visit to Japan, a typhoon rages while Dawn — now married to Nadeem and still a secret from his parents — makes clear over Skype that her patience has worn thin. And so Nadeem embarks on a plan to face his dilemma head-on, set the record straight, and provide a resolution for his long-in-the-works film. He heads to the small town in Ireland where his Pakistani parents moved their family after fleeing Saudi Arabia when the Gulf War broke out.

It’s his first visit home in a decade, and emotions are quietly intense during the reunion. Matthew Nauser, whose camerawork is astute throughout the film, knows precisely when to move in close and when to step back.

Logan Nelson’s low-key and eloquent score taps into the material’s playful jolts as well as its poignancy. Crows Are White delights in awkwardness — tempers flaring among the members of a film crew, the non sequitur of pickles in a Buddhist etiquette lesson (always leave one uneaten!), a monk cleaning his ear while on a video chat.

Between those humorous beats, people awaken to one another in ways they couldn’t foresee, as if discovering a new road up the mountain. You can focus on rarefied rituals, but chances are good that something spiritual is blooming in the earthly margins.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Production companies: Argent Pictures, Memory, Normal Content
Director: Ahsen Nadeem
Screenwriters: Ahsen Nadeem, Matt H. Mayes, Dawn Light Blackman
Producers: Riel Roch-Decter, Sebastian Pardo, Ahsen Nadeem, Jill Ahrens, Ryan Ahrens, Ben Renzo
Director of photography: Matthew Nauser
Editors: Kimberley Hassett, Weston Currie
Composer: Logan Nelson
Sales: CAA