Much like the serene community of Zen Buddhists who have committed to a life of tranquility and inner calm under the tutelage of mindfulness guru Thich Nhat Hanh, enjoyment of meditative documentary Walk with Me depends largely on whether or not a viewer is prepared to sign up to the program.
In the verdant splendour of the Dordogne in south west France sits Plum Village, a haven for meditation and monastic living inhabited by followers of Hanh, their great ‘teacher’ who fled to Europe in 1966 from his native Vietnam after campaigning against the war which ravaged the country and its people. It is the dulcet tones of Benedict Cumberbatch – that will smoothly interject throughout – that introduce the peaceful setting and tone of this behind-the-scenes tale and the words from Hanh’s Fragrant Palm Leaves Journals which inform the lifestyle and mindfulness his work promotes.
Co-directors Marc J. Francis and Max Pugh content themselves with an observational reverence with no direct intrusion. They are respectful of the devout, smiling, often crying, emotionally aware and tender subjects that move and live and laugh in front of them. In the sections of journal that Cumberbatch narrates there are continual contradictions, ideas that are counterpoised but that sit in perfect balance, and as such there is a harmony in both word and image here that does indeed lull us into a state of contentment.
However, as the camera amusingly observes one young monk yawning and scratching his shaved pate during a moment of silent group contemplation, and later a woman cooking bemoans the boredom she feels at the repetitive nature of their daily tasks, our investment – and indeed what we take – from Walk with Me depends on a great deal of patience. Just as the titular strolls through the beautiful French countryside are taken a sedate pace so does the film amble and shuffle along – to the point where relaxation borders on the soporific.
And as far as the community is concerned, it is not so much a case of worship for their leader but more an appreciation of what his principles have brought to their lives. An excursion to the USA lets us into the families and homes of those visiting loved ones from France, but the documentary is a little lacking in terms of motivations and purpose here. The benefits of a simple, silent subsistence in a modern world of noise, Fake News and technology are clear and appealing but what brought people to this monastery in the first place? What are their stories?
A rare insight into an interesting subject, then, but one which leaves us searching for further answers, Walk with Me is nonetheless a timely and welcome reminder of the importance of living in the present and the peace, love and essential goodness of humankind.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens