They’re making a big deal of the fact that this documentary be narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s in the trailer, he gets the main on end credit, he doesn’t deserve this. It feels like the filmmakers got him in a room for five minutes and he spat out everything they gave him in a single take. He delivers the words of Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh in a leaden tone. Bearing this portentous weight of self-importance that is tonally completely at odds with the rest of the joint.
Max Pugh & Marc J. Francis’ documentary takes us inside Plum Village, this French Monastery founded by Thich Nhat Hanh after his exile from Vietnam during the war. It’s a slow contemplative thing, not really interested in the deep beliefs that underpin the community or the structure that it takes. We don’t get interviews with any of the inhabitants, the filmmakers are content to sit back with their cameras and observe the life unfolding in this quiet place.
This is supported by Anna Bertmark’s wonderful sound design. Location audio is deemphasised, as our filmmakers wish not to impose themselves into the lives of their subjects. Scenes flit by scored by distant conversations played out at the edge of our hearing. A monk and a nun composing a text on mindfulness, kitchen staff occupying themselves while washing up. The film relishes these intimate moments of humanity, wilfully puncturing the heightened air that these figures seem to carry.
Not that the subjects seem particularly precious about their vocation either. They appear to be be a group of singularly pleasant people, which I suppose if you’ve dedicated yourself to the practise of mindfulness ain’t surprising. There are no direct on-camera interviews here, instead they give the time and the space to let them shoot the shit of their own accord. There’s this conversation with one nun who approaches her struggles with boredom quite frankly while preparing food for Hanh, in their own non-confrontational way we approach understanding.
But there is no deliberate centre here, even Hanh himself, who suffered a stroke shortly after the filming ended remains on its edges. It is not striving to be definitive, only exploratory. As such, we expand, the monastery itself also operates as a retreat for those interested in studying mindfulness. We see what it means to the laypeople to visit this place, to learn and dedicate themselves to an ideology that they are only guests in.
We see classes and ceremonies conducted with these tourists. The camera studies their faces, we see them in their belief and unbelief alike. The film does not judge their comprehension, it seems enamoured with it. We spend a lot of time with the children who were brought by their parents, inhabiting the struggle that comes between the human condition and the restrictions that we place upon ourselves in the name of enlightenment.
Later in the film we will join the community on a trip to America where they appear in a New York theatre to teach other followers, and the public, they perform charitable works, some of them visit the family they left behind. This is the showiest part of the joint and honestly my least favourite. Being out in public brings an urgency to the filmmaking, this sense that material needs to be captured.
There’s almost a performative aspect as we lurch from incident to incident, like we have to capture the essence of what it means to adhere to a particularly strict code in a place that is not built for you. I’m sure it is all real but in these moments we are encouraged to view the subjects as outsiders, we are required to judge them alongside society for the interaction to work.
Maybe it’s a concise argument for the need for monastic life, whatever that life may be. It just feels out of place when the rest of the time is spent chronicling the shape that the lives take. As out of place as Cumberbatch’s trash narration.
We open, and I think close too, on footage of a morning walking meditation across the monasteries, it is measured and composed and thoughtful, a time to reflect. The film ain’t as interested on the act of reflection itself I don’t think but it’s just there, prodding away, a perspectives on the lives we could have lived and the ones that we do. When it’s being relaxed it’s a very nice film.
Walk With Me is currently screening in UK cinemas