SXSW 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. The synopsis for this documentary had me excited to learn about the Tendai sect of monks on Mt Hiei in Japan. Known as “the Marathon Monks”, the sect has been a part of the mountain for more than 1200 years and are known for their extreme tests of physical endurance on the path to enlightenment. Director Ahsen Nadeem set out to explore his own faith, and looked to these monks for guidance.

This is a film of contradictions. It’s not really about the monks, and Nadeem’s true objective seems to be tricking the monks into guiding him through his messy life … a mess he created through his many deceptions. Nadeem seeks out time with Kamahori, a monk in the midst of a difficult 7-year journey to enlightenment. Kamahori has taken a vow of silence, which, as you can imagine, doesn’t make for a much of a cinematic interview. Instead, the monks kick Nadeem off the mountain when his cell phone rings. It’s at this point where we realize Nadeem is all about himself, and the tone of the film shifts.

Raised by strict Muslim parents, Nadeem recollects his childhood for us. It’s this background that allows us to understand how severe his broken trust with his parents has become. See, Nadeem is engaged to a non-Muslim woman, but he keeps this fact (and her) a secret despite regular Facetime calls. It’s a double-life that continues to get more complicated as the lies and deceptions pile up.

Still seeking answers, Nadeem heads back to the mountain where he meets Ryushin, a monk working the gift shop. We learn Ryushin is a black sheep monk … one who loves sake, ice cream, and heavy metal music (Slayer and Slipknot). Their odd friendship is the most interesting part of the film, and perhaps the portion that most helps Nadeem. Some of the best monk sayings come out in this part, though mostly we (and Nadeem) learn that perception is truth, and that we often lie to ourselves regarding key elements in life. And then Nadeem is again kicked off the mountain.

After returning to Los Angeles for his wedding, Nadeem admits that he still hasn’t told his parents. We find ourselves not liking Nadeem very much and certainly struggling to have any respect for a man who deceives his loved ones. In fact, his wife seems to take our side and is the one who pushes him to ‘come clean’ with the parents he hasn’t seen for 10 years, 3 of which cover his secret marriage. The way this portion is handled is downright despicable and we feel for his parents and the pain they experience.

We can remain in awe of the monks and their extreme physical feats. Walking the circumference of the globe over 1000 days is fascinating, and Kaihogyo – no sleep or lying down for 90 days – is dangerous and incredible. It’s very likely a second viewing of the film would allow for more focus on the spiritual aspects regarding faith and love and self. The contradictions in life – especially those we create for ourselves – are most certainly worth exploring, but our dislike of Nadeem (in spite of his honesty in front of the camera) is too distracting to pull out the wisdom and counseling that is present. Perhaps that is one more contradiction or paradox that we should deal with.

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