With unprecedented access, ‘Walk With Me’ goes deep inside a Zen Buddhist community who have given up all their possessions and signed up to a life of chastity for one common purpose – to transform their suffering, and practice the art of mindfulness with the world-famous teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
Filmed over three years, in their monastery in rural France and on the road in the USA, this visceral film is a meditation on a community grappling with existential questions and the everyday routine of monastic life.
As the seasons come and go, the monastics’ pursuit for a deeper connection to themselves and the world around them is amplified by insights from Thich Nhat Hanh’s early journals, narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch.
WALK WITH ME
DIRECTED BY MAX PUGH and MARC J. FRANCIS
Ten years ago my younger brother gave up his money, his car and his house, and ordained as a Buddhist monk in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. His decision did not entirely come as a surprise to me, as he had been leaning towards Buddhism since his graduation from university a few years earlier. We spoke at length about his choice of ‘career’, but it wasn’t until an elder monk from his community approached me about shooting a documentary during their 2011 US and Canada teaching tour with Thich Nhat Hanh that I really had a chance to experience monastic life for myself. At this point, I teamed up with my old friend and fellow film maker Marc J. Francis and the film now known as ‘Walk With Me’ was born.
The experience of being on the road with the monastics changed my life in many ways. The practice of deep listening, sharing and living alongside the monastics moved me to dig deeper and to work harder to find ways to best represent their way of being on film. Due to the non-hierarchical organisation of the monasteries and Thich Nhat Hanh himself discouraging us from making him the subject of the film, it was not possible to construct the film conventionally around a set of characters and a clear story. Instead we decided on an approach which we refer to as ‘experiential’; a type of cinematography and montage which aims to create a visceral and immersive experience.
Taking our time with the film process has allowed for experimentation and the chance to develop a cinematic ‘language’ capable of communicating the actual lived practice of a life lived differently and mindfully. Instead of critiquing the practice embraced by the monastics and the retreatants who pass through their monasteries, we have attempted to create a film which plunges the audience deep into the poetry of the present moment; a feeling so elusive in the reality of the daily grind.
MARC J. FRANCIS:
My friend Max Pugh had secured access to Thich Nhat Hanh’s Zen Buddhist monastery in Plum Village in France, and wanted to make a film about his brother who had recently decided to become a monk. Max brought his project to my company, Speakit Films, to come onboard as producers. Having been friends for many years and coupled with my own curiosity about Zen Buddhism, I was keen to help out in anyway I could.
Traditionally most films use a small handful of characters with clear narrative arcs, but to make this film we had to abandon these conventions and come up with a different approach that could somehow make the whole community the main character of the film. I thought that it was a great privilege to make a film about Thich Nhat Hanh and his monastics, and to find a way to amplify his message of love and compassion in an increasingly divisive and stressful world would be a story worth telling. I spent many weeks at the monasteries in France and the US without my camera practising mindfulness and learning their way of seeing and being in the world. When we did finally introduce our cameras into the situation there was a trust and openness that allowed us to capture a level of intimacy that we had been searching for.
The making of the film became a mindfulness practice in itself. We had to remain non-attached to our outcomes. Some days we wouldn’t film anything, and on others we managed to capture great scenes. It was our goal to find a way to make a film that could transmit the energy of mindfulness as embodied by Thich Nhat Hanh and his monastics. We achieved this by avoiding using talking-heads explaining mindfulness, and leaving out the personal stories from the monastic interviews we had conducted. Instead we focused our attention on employing an observational filming style coupled with cinematic visuals to capture the natural world that surrounded our characters. In post-production, we amplified the natural sounds in the film and used music very sparingly – only when it felt like it was coming from the fabric of the moment itself.