Documentary follows populariser of mindfulness

March, 02/2018 - 09:00

Slow down and breathe as you watch the documentary film Walk with Me, a contemplative journey that follows the steps of zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh to offer a rare insight into life within a monastic community.

Rolling: Directors Max Pugh (left) and Marc J Francis on location. — Photo courtesy of BHD
Viet Nam News

HÀ NỘI — Slow down and breathe as you watch the documentary film Walk with Me, a contemplative journey that follows the steps of zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh to offer a rare insight into life within a monastic community.

The documentary, featuring the famous Buddhist monk whose teachings have popularised the mindfulness movement around the world, opened yesterday at BHD Star cinemas in Việt Nam. It is also in cinemas worldwide.

Benedict Cumberbatch (main actor of Dr Strange) narrates this thoughtful documentary about the 91-year-old Vietnamese zen Buddhist monk and his retreat in Plum Village in southwest France.  

Life is beautifully serene as Cumberbatch’s composed, meditative voice reads an extract from Thích Nhất Hạnh’s early journals.

So begins directors Max Pugh and Marc J Francis’ fascinating and immersive exploration of what it means to devote one’s life to mindfulness.

“With unprecedented access to the famous secluded monastery of Plum Village, Walk with Me captures the daily routine and rituals of monks and nuns on a quest to develop a deep sense of presence,” said film programmer of the London Film Festival, Laure Bonville.

“It is an insightful rumination on the pursuit of happiness, living in the present and our attachment to material things – a welcome remedy to the stresses of city life and a world in turmoil."

Mindfulness guru: Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh is seen in the film. — Photo courtesy of BHD

For the first time in its history, Plum Village has granted long-term access to documentary filmmakers. Over three years, the film directors observed the lives of the monastics both inside their monastery and on their travels abroad.

Through intimate interviews and observational filming, Walk with Me explores the deeply personal reasons why Thích Nhất Hạnh’s monks and nuns decided to leave their families and follow in his footsteps.

Emerging from this direct observation is an immersive film composed of a collection of poetic impressions, fragmented moments and images that unfold as the four seasons come and go. Like all random moments in life, these seemingly fragmented impressions all have some intrinsic commonality in that they touch the simple ordinary presence of being here, now.

Director Pugh said 10 years ago his younger brother gave up his money, his car and his house, and ordained as a Buddhist monk in the tradition of zen master Hạnh.

“The experience of being on the road with the monastics changed my life in many ways,” he said. “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.”

“We invested a lot of time in the film process to allow for experimentation and the chance to develop a cinematic language capable of communicating the actual lived practice of a life lived differently and mindfully,” he said.

Serene: A scene in the film Walk With Me following the mindful steps of monk Thích Nhất Hạnh. — Photo courtesy of BHD

“We focussed on an experiential approach; to create a visceral and immersive experience which plunges the audience deep into the poetry of the present moment - a feeling so elusive in the reality of the daily grind.”

Meanwhile, director Francis knew very little about the great monk before starting this film.

As soon as he saw Hạnh for the first time, he was really impressed by his sense of presence and mindfulness. That encounter inspired him to find a way to make a film that could capture that experience.

“The making of the film became a mindfulness practice in itself. We had to remain non-attached to our outcomes because we never knew what would happen each day. Some days we couldn’t film anything, and on others we managed to capture great scenes.

Ultimately, we wanted to find a cinematic language that could transmit to the audience our own personal experience in the monastery so it could feel like a meditation in itself.”

Buddhist monk Thích Chân Pháp Cẩn, a meditation teacher in the US, felt moved when watching the film.

"I’m a monastic disciple of zen master Hạnh, so I like the film. Maybe I am subjective. I don’t know whether non-religious people or people from other religions like it. For me, the film Walk with Me is meaningful with beautiful music and scenes." — VNS