DIR/WRI/PRO/DOP: Mark J. Francis, Max Pugh • ED: Mark J. Francis, Max Pugh, Alan Mackay, Nicholas Chaudeurge • MUS: Germaine Franco • CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch (Narrator) Thich Nhát Hanh
Walk with Me is a documentary about life in Plum Village, a Zen Buddhist community established by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1982 in southwestern France. The community live a Spartan life according to the principle of its founder, now over 90, but still a central presence despite having suffered from a stroke in recent years.
Thich Nhát Hanh is credited with introducing the concept of Mindfulness to the Western world, a practice which has been steadily growing in worldwide popularity in recent years. He features throughout the film but his presence is low key. The central theme of the film is the community and the monastic lifestyle which the male and female monks in the community follow. This involves a strict commitment to celibacy (including avoidance of any thoughts which might conflict with that principle) and to poverty.
The essence of daily life in Plum Village is a commitment to simplicity and the practice of “Mindfulness” in all tasks, though that term is rarely used. One of the features of daily life is the ringing of a resounding bell at irregular times. This signals to all residents that they must stop whatever they are doing at that point and re-connect with themselves. Thich Nhát Hanh himself seems to be the primary bell ringer.
The film appears to have been a labour of love for the directors Mark J. Francis and Max Pugh, who fill almost all of the roles behind the camera. This may have advantages in ensuring the ‘Auteurs’ achieve their vision for the film but it has disadvantages in other respects.
The directors were granted unprecedented access to the community to facilitate filming. They have reciprocated by following a respectful observational approach to the subject matter rather than an interrogatory approach.
There is little in the way of a story arc in a film that has a very leisurely, meditative pace. Some may find themselves identifying with one monk who appeared to be distracted as he yawned several times, unable to sustain the level of concentration of his peers.
Indeed, some of the more absorbing scenes take place outside of Plum Village when we follow the monks on outings to the US. This includes one very entertaining street scene and a couple of very moving scenes where monks reconnect with their families.
Throughout the film we hear the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch as narrator. The narration consists mainly of quotes from “Fragrant Palm Leaves”, a book of philosophy by the founder written over one year in 1966. This was a turning point in Thich Nhat Hanh’s life. It was the year he arrived in France having had to flee Vietnam due to his opposition to the Vietnam war and his attempts to achieve peace. It is a measure of the man that he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize at that time by Martin Luther King.
Unfortunately, apart from the philosophy, we hear nothing of the founder’s experiences during that time or what motivated him to establish Plum village. It would have been interesting to hear more about the genesis of the community. I would liked to have heard more from Thich Nhát Hanh about his own life, or perhaps even to hear one of the senior monks talk about that. I would like to have known more about why people are drawn to Plum Village and what keeps them there.
Despite these elusive elements, there is an honesty at the heart of the film. Life in Plum Village is not presented as idyllic. One of the messages that emerged was that if a monk achieves a certain level of awareness, then suffering too will follow.
This documentary has a meditative immersive quality. However, it may make for challenging viewing for some at times which may require the exercise of mindfulness. But it has an honesty and integrity at its heart.
Brian Ó Tiomáin
Walk with Me is released 5th January 2018