Max Pugh and Marc James Francis’ documentary is an insightful, contemplative study of world-renowned Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hahn (Thay) and his international monastic community at Plum Village in Southern France. Forced into exile following his efforts to incite peace during the Vietnam War in the 1970s, Thay emigrated to the West and has since created the largest Buddhist monastery, with 200 monks and nuns residing at the mindfulness practice centre. Alongside the permanent residents living with Thay, Plum Village is host to thousands of visiting meditation practitioners who travel from across the globe to experience the peaceful, harmonious environment.
The tone of the documentary is set in the film’s opening sequence, with Benedict Cumberbatch’s baritone voice-over narrating the teachings of Thay, whilst the rising sun glows through crisp tree branches in the French countryside. Pugh and Francis are intent on replicating the stillness and tranquillity of the community, using their unprecedented access to encapsulate the slow-moving, pensive nature of the inhabitants of the village. As Thay and his followers wander through the woodland, we are offered no formal introductions to characters nor are any questions regarding the community directly answered. Instead, we are simply provided organic insight into the homes and rituals of Plum Village, the audience situating themselves as peaceful bystanders.
At times, the reserved nature of the documentary can become frustrating. The community prides itself on mindfulness and simplistic living, cultivating a sense of awakening by adhering to a set of Buddhist precepts. Yet, there are instances where Pugh and Francis open doors to locating the hardships of such strict, radical lifestyle changes and how people within the centre adjust. We briefly glimpse a young monk admitting an occasional sense of boredom, stating ‘there are times I do things out of love for teachers, that helps with the boredom […] but sometimes I have to get out of here’. This is the same monk who previously yawned during a mediation session, the camera providing a close-up of his fidgety persona. Another instance follows an American woman to New York to visit her family, an emotional trip home the monastic lifestyle only permits once every two years. Yet, such insights into the more challenging, difficult aspects of the community are fleeting, leaving the viewer in the dark on such topics on several occasions.
Direct information on the Plum Village community and their daily goals and commitments is more easily available via their website, with the film occasionally appearing bear of factual information. Nonetheless, it still provides a beautiful and enlightening insight into the humble, meditative world which is undoubtedly a calming cinematic experience. If you have the chance to catch Walk With Me in the cinema, I sincerely urge you to do so; this environment grants an all-encompassing journey into scenic landscapes and contemplative silence. It is clear Thay’s teachings, which have spawned a further 8 Plum Village communities across Europe, Asia and the US, provide a flourishing, positive environment for thousands of practising Buddhists, and both directors celebrate such wonderful traditions. Certainly, we do not gain a thorough profile of Thay, but it is clear that is exactly how the introspective teacher would want it to be. The documentary lives up to its name, allowing you to walk alongside Thay whilst paying respectful homage to his admirable way of life.
Dir: Marc. J Francis, Max Pugh
Scr: Marc. J Francis, Max Pugh
Featuring: Benedict Cumberbatch (narrator), Thich Nhat Hanh
Prd: Marc. J Francis, Max Pugh
DOP: Marc. J Francis, Max Pugh
Music: Germaine Franco
Run time: 94 mins
Walk With Me is in selected cinemas now