‘Walk With Me’: Film Review | SXSW 2017

Thich Nhat Hanh Plum Village Monastery France Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Speakit Productions Ltd
Uneven but deeply felt.

Filmmakers Max Pugh and Marc J. Francis offer an insider’s view of a renowned Zen Buddhist monastery.

Heartfelt, if not entirely satisfying, Walk With Me provides an up-close glimpse of the life of devotion, focusing on the monks and nuns who live at a rural monastery led by Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh.

Credited with introducing the practice of mindfulness to the West, the 90-year-old has been limited in his activities as the result of a recent stroke, but for a long time he appeared regularly on the lecture circuit, and many Americans (including this one) have heard him speak and been guided through meditations by him. To convey the powerful calm of his presence would be a tall order for any film. The documentary by Max Pugh and Marc J. Francis certainly has its potent moments. But its mix of the contemplative and the observational finally proves more illustrative than immersive. 

What Walk With Me offers first and foremost is the chance to spend time at Plum Village, the monastic community that Nhat Hanh established in 1982 in southwestern France. The vérité film, which distills the directors’ three years of access into a scrapbook of moments at the monastery and during stateside tours, provides no background on the monk and activist, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King. The focus, as it should be in keeping with the practice of mindfulness, is on the here and now. 

The filmmakers (who share DP duties) capture a range of day-to-day activity in the monastery’s idyllic sylvan setting. On the contemplative side, there are slow, purposeful walks through the woods, meals shared in silence, the ritual shaving of heads. On a more nitty-gritty level, there are website updates, food preparation, and reception procedures for paying visitors. 

Not unlike the chimes that stop all conversation and movement at Plum Village whenever they sound, images of beauty punctuate the doc’s chronicled events. Over lingering shots of the moon or candles afloat on a lake, Benedict Cumberbatch (whose SunnyMarch helped to produce the doc) lends his plummy vowels to readings from Fragrant Palm Leaves, a collection of Nhat Hanh’s journal writings during his first years of exile from his native Vietnam. 

In New York, the superstar monk’s name appears on a Manhattan venue’s schedule between those of Jackson Browne and John Oliver. We see the expectant crowd but get no sense of the interchange between the master and his audience. By comparison, a couple of side trips by members of his entourage are among the film’s most effective sequences. 

Visiting her father in a nursing home, a nun meditates with the elderly man, and the wordless connection between them is sublime. The parents of another American, a young monk, show him the life plan he drew up years earlier. It’s a glib, busy timeline of conventional milestones and material achievements; he projected that he’d “have everything” at 40. In his robes, the man who has since taken a vow of poverty can only laugh at his youthful plots and plans. It would be hard to find a document more perfectly antithetical to mindfulness. 

Those not used to the practice’s deliberate pace and stillness might identify with another young monk, who, in an affectionately framed joke, is captured yawning and fidgeting during a group meditation. Though not every scene works, the filmmakers, to their credit, are interested in the mixed bag of experience, not pious tribute. 

In a way, Thich Nhat Hanh is the elusive center of Walk With Me; there’s little direct experience of him, but his effect on people filters through the onscreen events. Reportedly the stroke he suffered in 2014 has robbed him of the ability to speak, so the chance to hear him, at an earlier point, answer a little girl’s question about death and mourning is especially welcome.

Venue: South by Southwest (Documentary Spotlight)
Production companies: Speakit Films in association with SunnyMarch
Narrator: Benedict Cumberbatch
Directors: Max Pugh, Marc J. Francis
Producers: Max Pugh, Marc J. Francis
Executive producer: Nick Francis
Directors of photography: Max Pugh, Marc J. Francis
Editors: Max Pugh, Marc J. Francis
Composer: Germaine Franco
Sales: WestEnd Films

94 minutes