Walk with Me: an Interview with Max Pugh and Marc J. Francis

Walk With Me carries within its heart a quiet note of brotherly love. When filmmaker Max Pugh’s brother became a Buddhist monk, over ten years ago, Pugh attended the ordination. It left a profound impression on him. Years later, Pugh and fellow filmmaker Marc J. Francis were invited to make a documentary about the community his brother had joined, Plum Village. The village is a Zen Buddhist community and meditation centre, founded by the Vietnamese poet and spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh, and his monastic disciple Sister Chan Khong.

The film follows the daily life of the community both in the village and later on as they accompany Thich Nhat Hanh on a speaking tour in the United States. Walk With Me turns out to be less a documentary about Zen Buddhism, and far more a film about the human condition. It is a film suffused by a contemplative approach, heart and mind open to new insights about existence – both harsh and peaceful.

It’s a refreshingly open text. There is no advocacy; the film does not seek to make a case, or explain. Instead, it gives room to viewers to remain aware of their own, real-time, sometimes mixed responses to the situations depicted in the film. Marc J Francis has mentioned elsewhere that “The making of the film became a mindfulness practice in itself. We had to remain non-attached to our outcomes because we never knew what would happen each day.”

When I spoke with Pugh and Francis during the 2017 London Film Festival, after a screening of Walk With Me, we discussed how this sense of non-attachment, in the Zen Buddhist sense, shaped the film into something deeply affecting, where emotion and insight are borne out of quiet observation.

Initially the filmmakers had only a tangential interest in Buddhism; their perspective, as they started out on the film, was one of being outsiders. For Pugh, there was a family connection – he has described this as having the sense of his brother giving his life to a social ideal, one which is giving, which opens out to the world. He felt he was curious and had been ready for the subject, but that as a filmmaker, it was important to pull back a bit, that questions needed to be asked – for the audience.

The openness of the film is clear early on, during a sequence which features an ordination ceremony, attended by the Plum Village community as well as family and friends. Pugh has mentioned how the scene was captured, and how strikingly similar it was, emotionally, to his brother’s own ordination ceremony several years before. It is an ambiguous scene.

Remembering his own experience, Pugh mentions the complexity of that moment: “When I was present at his ordination, I saw people’s reactions first hand – this was several years before we were filming… There’s a mixture of emotions; parents feel a certain amount of grief, happiness, it’s mixed…” Later, he noticed a similar range of powerful emotions: “One of the fathers is crying his eyes out, while the head of his son is being shaved…”

It’s a powerful rite of passage, and Pugh and Francis are clear that the ordination sequence, shown in the main as outwardly deeply peaceful, and one of fulfilment, holds a wealth of experiences within it. One almost subliminal element which heightens the momentous atmosphere is the sound design, which the filmmakers had identified as an important part of the film – along with a sparse, minimal use of music. They have mentioned elsewhere that “In post-production, we amplified the natural sounds in the film to draw the audience into the heart of the scene as much as possible, and used music very sparingly – only when it felt like it was coming from the fabric of the moment itself.”

This approach means that certain moments which in other films about Buddhism might have come across as a journey towards peace, here leave the viewer open to experiencing the moment as both beautiful but also, perhaps, brutal. Pugh mentions that he had in mind Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. “When the boys are transformed into men, soldiers… It was part of a wider discussion about how not to make this film as a typical ‘Buddhist Dharma’ film. That demonstrates that we are not propagandists, that we are observers.”

The ordination scene, which works so powerfully, only needed to be shot once, and is key to what follows in the film. It’s a defining moment, a radical decision, as the filmmakers put it: “That scene puts into stark contrast the radical nature of that decision”.

There is so much to unpack here. The ordinants include women. The experience of seeing a woman’s head being shaved carries even greater force than for the men – this feels weightier somehow than the scene in Full Metal Jacket – cultural references, in the West at least, are such that while for the men the imagery of a ‘boys into men’ and a soldier’s rite of passage carry a certain grandeur, seeing a woman’s head being shaved – however happy or at peace she appears – carries a connotation of, at the least, loss.

That the loss can lead to a gain or a transformation does not attenuate the sense of curiosity and disquiet, as well as happiness or fulfilment, one might experience while looking at these very beautiful images. Meanwhile, from a Zen Buddhist perspective, such a transition would be lived very differently. The beauty of the film is the growing insight into the things one feels attached to, and how that attachment is perceived differently in Zen Buddhism. The mind shifts from this perspective to that, as the film unspools.

Walk with Me is visually beautiful, strikingly so during the ordination ceremony where the light looks like silk, and something undefinable suffuses the images. As the camera follows one of the female ordinants after her head has been shorn, and the back of her shaved head is in close-up, blood appears – her head was nicked during the shaving, and the blood, deep red, captures the eye. The camera does not look away; the blood remains at the heart of that image.

This feels both moving and intriguing. For Pugh and Francis, this carries further meaning: “that moment there …. really symbolised for us the harshness of the decision, to an outsider… For anybody on the outside, wow, that’s a harsh moment. And so it really it helps us as filmmakers build the trust of the audience. Also, we’re willing to show those little moments that happen naturally but which were not planned… We were left free, as filmmakers, to do that.”

When the film had originally been envisaged, it had been mooted as a road movie, following Thich Nhat Hanh and members of the community on a speaking tour – as the filmmakers put it “a tour of America, like a rock band but without sex or drugs… That’s where the film goes in the second and third act…”. The structure however evolved, with the first act starting out in France, in Plum Village. As the film progresses, it comes closer and closer to the members of the community. Over the 12-month edit, the narrative became increasingly centred around mood and the passage of time, shown through changing seasons. It reveals increasingly the humanity of the characters in the film; Pugh and Francis were purposefully “constructing narrative out of the mood, which is far more subtle, far more complex.”

“One of the last editing decisions we made was to remove interview material with the monastics; we had personal experiences, reasons… one of the last editing decisions we made was to remove even that… the result is to make the film even more open.”

While interview material was removed, very telling exchanges remain. The filmmakers follow a man visiting his parents. They reminisce about the grand plans he had made, while still very young, for his life – a world away from that of a Buddhist monk. They are now all sweetly, gently amused, not by any imagined hubris, but simply at how differently things have turned out, how unpredictable the course of a life can be.

For older members of the community, their past lives are hinted at in passing, with much left to imagine. Two older men are clearing out a hall when they recognise each other from lives lived a continent and decades away.

The high point of the film is a gentle, quiet scene. A Buddhist nun sees her elderly father again after a long absence. It is a moment of infinite, unspoken tenderness. Filmed in a low-key, unobtrusive manner, it reveals the strength and humility of the filmmakers, and their ethos, in observing others’ journeys.

The film’s ethos is also revealed in other ways. Thich Nhat Hanh is a quiet presence in a film which purposefully does not make him into a central figure. There is no conventional narration. Instead, actor Benedict Cumberbatch reads excerpts from Fragrant Palm Leaves, Thich Nhat Hanh’s diaries from the 1960s. This, like the images of passing seasons, punctuates rather than structures the film.

This is a film which is wonderful in its ambiguity and openness, intentionally so. In a rare moment which shows Thich Nhat Hanh in dialogue with the community, a child asks him about the sadness she feels about the death of her dog. Thich Nhat Hanh answers with metaphors. Those are beautiful, and ring true, but will it help the child with her sadness? Her smile can be read in so many ways. Pugh and Francis find this telling “You then have to decide if the smile on her face is one of understanding…. I think she is touched by the beauty of the metaphor.”

Ultimately, this is something that is consistent with their approach throughout the film: “The text of the film very open; we wanted to do that. We wanted people to come away and make up their own minds.”

If a Zen Buddhist community is in many ways at the heart of Walk With Me, the lasting emotions of this film are those of life itself – the stories here belong to everyone.

Producers, Directors & Cinematographers: Marc J. Francis, Max Pugh
Editors: Marc J. Francis, Max Pugh, Nicolas Chaudeurge, Alan Mackay
Sound Designer: Anna Bertmark
Composer: Germaine Franco
Narrator: Benedict Cumberbatch

Originally published on Cinemazine, January 2018