Walk With Me, the newest documentary from directors Max Pugh (The Road to Freedom Peak) and Marc James Francis (When China Met Africa), features a moment in which mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh leads a session of traditional prayer and song observed by visitors to, and potential new students of, his Plum Village monastery. In a film which is purposefully subdued, this scene breaks through the blanket of silence with its waves of euphoric chanting. However, just as the emotional weight of the moment seems to reach its magnitude, the whole purpose of it feels somewhat undercut by the sound of uncontrollable sobbing coming from tourists in the audience. Initially, it feels like an odd editing choice, to permeate the ethereal atmosphere with an outbreak of emotion which had been until that point so supressed throughout the film; what it does intentionally highlight is how only extreme training and deep understanding of mindfulness in its essence can teach this kind of emotional restraint – that’s something Walk With Me is fixated on conveying.
Buried in the South of France is a monastic community known as Plum Village. The documentary tells us that Nhat Hanh moved there after being forced into exile after his failed attempts to bring about peace during the Vietnam War, and established the monastery in 1982 with the aim of bringing mindful practicing to the Western world. Juxtaposing his own quiet, introspective personal rituals with the mandatory extraversion having a public persona brings is just one of the balances the film pays attention to, showing how daily administrative tasks such as taking payments from students, and making updates to the website coexist alongside remembering to maintain a sense of oneness with the immediate environment. One of the monks is captured telling a visitor that at the chime of a bell, ringing at exactly fifteen minute intervals, all monks and nuns in the monastery will stop whatever they are doing. “We have a tendency to be in autopilot”, he says. “So this reminds us to exist in the moment”.
Brief periods of narration by Benedict Cumberbatch (his voice suitably mellow, warm and heavy here. It would be wrong to call him the star of this film as he crops up only intermittently, but his interjections on the whole don’t feel entirely unnecessary) divide up a considerably lengthy-feeling one-and-a-half-hour runtime. It is understandable that the filmmakers, having spent a three-year period examining the lifestyle and culture of this specific community, would aim to create something with a tone in keeping with how these individuals live, focussing on the routines and paraphernalia which they hold close to their minds and hearts. In the context of Walk with Me, this means long, establishing shots over mountain ranges and beds of water and silent tracking shots of walks taken through wilderness. One particular instance of prolonged footage of an individual eating a snack amongst a sea of others in a stunningly silent canteen area is particularly exceptional; each bite of the rice cake, each sniffle or cough made reverberates around the room.
These drawn-out expositional shots act as a detailed and informative documentation of the culture of those who choose to remove themselves from wider society and isolate themselves here, however this comes at the lack of more meaningful substance.
This film is crying out for an emotional weight to anchor itself to, and with no real backstory given to any of the characters it follows, this is something which is sorely missed, and contributes to a slightly empty, voyeuristic, viewing experience.
While beautiful to look at and interesting enough in its concept, superficial style both in aesthetics and tone is something Walk With Me mistakenly emphasises over substantial content, and the film feels wholly less immersive as a result. Its reluctance to give over any personal insights can feel frustrating, even if the decision behind this feels somewhat logical. Mindfulness in practice requires existing solely within each moment as it transpires. It’s a noble effort for this plodding documentary to adopt the same ideology, eliminating backstory and any existing history to focus only on what fits within the frame of the camera. It’s a shame it doesn’t quite land.
By Maisie McGregor
Walk With Me is screening at Glasgow Film Theatre between the 15th – 18th of January. Anyone aged between 15 and 25 can get a free card from GFT that entitles them to £5.50 tickets to any standard screening.