A documentary by Marc J. Francis and Max Pugh. In English, French, and Vietnamese, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
Any attempt to capture the nothingness central to Zen Buddhism is bound to be as frustrating as holding sand with open fingers. And that’s the kind of aphorism that dominates Walk With Me, a contemplative, sporadically engaging film about the teachings and followers of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s peace activism goes back to the 1950s, and he taught comparative religion at Princeton and Columbia universities before returning to his home country in time for Americans to take over the ill-fated anti-Communist war from the French. Agitation for nonviolent response eventually saw him exiled to the U.S., where he urged Martin Luther King Jr. to speak out against the war. King did so and, in fact, nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for a Nobel Peace Prize.
The activist monk later moved to France, and after the North Vietnamese army prevailed in 1975, he was again denied permission to go home. He led efforts to help rescue Boat People, and was eventually allowed to visit Vietnam three decades later. Along the way, he’s been embroiled in geopolitical and interreligious (and antireligious) controversies, while establishing mindfulness-centred monasteries in the U.S., Germany, and France. He also suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrhage in 2014.
None of that background is even hinted at in this 95-minute documentary from American Marc J. Francis and Brit Max Pugh, who centre their efforts on the teacher’s beatific Plum Village, well-placed in the vineyard country of southwest France. We see the daily rituals of devotees—many Vietnamese, but others from all over—as they share simple meals, play music, and engage the world silently every 15 minutes, at the sound of a bell.
It also follows a few of them to family reunions in the States, or a larger group to big cities, where Thich Nhat Hanh gets the rock-star treatment at group meditations. (At one concert hall, he fills a slot between Jackson Browne and John Oliver.)
People watching the new Netflix series Wild Wild Country, about the Rajneesh movement of the 1980s, will have their minds full of the dangers of personality cults. There’s little to raise those concerns here, but also not much to impress the uninitiated with the charisma or spiritual acumen of its subject, whose early writings are read, rather unctuously, by an off-screen Benedict Cumberbatch.