A couple of months ago, four-time Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Birdman,” 2014; “The Revenant,” 2015) enthusiastically supported Mark J. Francis’ mindfulness documentary “Walk With Me,” about Vietnam’s Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926), describing it in Variety as ‘silent and pure, containing images and sound that translate the forgotten conciseness, [bringing it] right there on the screen.’
That’s about as nice as any compliment can be, especially since Mr. Iñárritu is absolutely right when he speaks so highly about “Walk With Me”—frankly, I wouldn’t dare to disagree with this very accomplished filmmaker, of course. But even then, there is much to say about this documentary, directed by Mr. Frances and Max Pugh. With rave reviews in the U.S. and the U.K.—and just about anywhere else—”Walk With Me” is insightful documentation that tells the story of Zen Buddhists from all different walks of life, living together in silence and meditation in Thich Nhat Hanh’s spiritual retreat and rural monastery in Plum Village (Southwest France).
British-born Mark J. Francis came over to Belgium to talk about his latest project, which took both him and his co-director Max Pugh (they also share producing and editing credits, among others) several years to shoot before finishing the film’s post-production. But the final product has reached our screens by now, and it’s out there for anyone to see, to be judged, and—who knows—to pick up a few awards here and there during the upcoming awards season.
Mr. Francis, when you make a documentary like “Walk With Me,” you don’t have a script like a filmmaker has when he makes a feature film. So what’s your working method like, how do you prepare, and what do you hope your shooting schedule will look like?
In the beginning, you step into this project with ideas. This particular film was very chalenging because we wanted to focus on Thich Nhat Hanh himself and identify the main characters like you would for a conventional film, you know, find a narrative, the beginning, middle, and end, and go from there. But one of the conditions for filming in the monastery was something Thich Nhat Hanh had said, ‘Don’t make it about me.’ He said that because he feels that in society today, communities and cities are putting too much trust into leaders—celebrities or politicians. Communities need to be more empowered in themselves; they need to try and make more decisions by themselves and for themselves. So this was a condition. As a filmmaker, that’s a great challenge because obviously, where or how do you make a character out of a community? That’s essentially what we had to try and do. We had several hundred monastics who were all wearing the same clothes, the same hairstyle, so it was very difficult to identify individual characteristics. The other challenge was in order to get the trust and access to the monks and nuns, we had to spend a lot of time in the monastery without the camera. Only when they felt that we were practicing mindfulness and they could sense that we were calm in ourselves, they’d then open up more doors for us to get into. So we really had to let go of all these ideas about how we would normally make films and literally find a way to relax and be present in the moment, each day, with the monks and nuns. We kept our cameras with us, and in the event that there was an opportunity or a moment that revealed itself, we would grab it and film it. Every time we tried to control a situation, we lost the moment. So as a director who likes to be in control, this was a film when we had no control whatsoever. It was a tremendous experience to find a way and make a movie without being in control of the moviemaking, and just to see how we would be able to catch it. So after we finished shooting, we edited the film for a year because we were trying to create a mood narrative—trying to find the narrative out of the mood of the film, and also creating the narrative out of the passing of time, like the changing of the season. Another device was using particular passages from Thich Nhat Hanh’s journal, which documents his real insights about what he really wanted to do in his life, and how and why he wanted to do it. So using all these different components, I think, that was in the end how we managed to make a film like this. Also, we realized early on, our intention as directors was, ‘How can we present a film that will allow the audience to have the experience that they can feel what it’s like to be there?’ That was very important, rather than intellectually understand who Thich Nhat Hanh is, or intellectually understand what mindfulness is. For us, we were making cinema, so we wanted to use the cinematic language in order to be able to convey the experience as we lived it. So I think, ultimately, that is what we set out to do. I wouldn’t necessarily do it like that again, but the way we were doing it, was suitable for this kind of subject. First and foremost, though, we’re filmmakers, so we’re interested in telling stories, wherever the audience comes from and whatever the audience believes in. We’re offering the audience an experience they might never have experienced before. I was not into this when I started this film—I wasn’t a Buddhist then, and I’m not a Buddhist now, I wasn’t into mindfulness, I was just interested in their journey, what they’re doing and what they’re talking about. So we are neutral and take the audience with us through our eyes, and then they can decide for themselves if they agree with this, do they disagree with that, do they like it—whatever. We don’t want to be pushing a view on the audience: we leave it open for the audience to decide for themselves.
What inspired or triggered you to make this documentary?
The brother of co-director Max Pugh is a monk in this particular tradition, and I knew him before he was a monk. One day the monastery decided they were willing to open up and allow filmmakers in for the very first time. So they reached out to Max, and they asked him if he might be interested in making a film about Plum Village [where the French monastery is located]. And Max, who is a very good friend of mine, got in touch with me and asked, ‘Why don’t we do this together?’ At that point in my life, I was asking some bigger questions about myself—who am I, why am I here, where am I going—this kind of existential questions, and I felt by participating in this film, I had an opportunity to get a sense of maybe get some answers. Particularly one of the things that Thich Nhat Hanh is well-known for, is not so much the big philosophical questions. He also talked a lot about engaged Buddhism, mindfulness, which is more about relationships. You hear them talk about relationships; you don’t hear them talk about Buddha. What is your relationship with yourself and with others. In other words, do you find yourself getting stressed, anxious,… Do you get caught in these emotions? They teach what these emotions mean and how to be at peace with them so that you can be more present in your day-to-day life. I felt that I was at a point in my life where that was really helpful for me to have some insight into why do I feel the way I feel. Sometimes I can get emotionally reactive if things don’t go my way or if my expectations are not met. And particularly in the film industry, it’s up and down, up and down. Things can go really well, and the next day they can go really bad. So how can one find a sense of calm, or find being in the center of the storm and not spinning around the storm. Thich Nhat Hanh is known to be a master by giving people the insight to these things, so on a personal level, I was interested in finding out what his techniques are and see if it could work for me. Making this movie was like an excuse to find out for myself and share it with the world [laughs].
Before you went to the monastery for the first time, did you do any research about Buddhism?
Nothing. I was totally fresh. I knew very, very little. But I had always been curious about Buddhism, their philosophy, and what they talk about, but not enough to do any research.
So when you did “Walk With Me,” you were an outsider trying to look in. Did you have the same approach when you did your previous documentaries “Black Gold”  about the global coffee trade or “When China Met Africa”  about China’s growing influence in Africa?
No, they were different. Looking back to “When China Met Africa,” I had studied Chinese at the university, and I had lived in China, so I was very familiar with that subject. I was trying to tell a story about China in the modern world, a story that showed how China is becoming the next superpower very quickly. Setting the movie in Africa and seeing how the Chinese are in Africa right now, in every single way—it’s incredible what’s happening there, massive ways of migration into Africa—for me it was a portrait, capturing a moment and making a statement about the rise of China in the world. So I already had a very deep understanding of it. And when I did “Black Gold,” I was already familiar with the politics and the environment before starting that film. But for this particular one, I was fresh.
“Walk With Me” looks in a way like a feature film, no hand-held cameras or jump-cutting. It has all the ingredients of a feature film.
Well, we knew we were making it for the cinema, so we wanted to give it the best cinematic values—cinematography, sound design, editing—as we possibly could to justify it when you see it on a big screen.
Was it difficult to finance this project?
Very difficult. To come back to your first question, we didn’t have a script, we didn’t have characters, we didn’t have a clear story, so it was very difficult to pitch what the movie was going to be to anyone. And the kind of movies we make, are not easy to finance.
In the end credits, you get to see hundreds of people who supported the project and crowdfunded the film. French actress Mélanie Laurent did a documentary “Demain” [2015, a.k.a. “Tomorrow”] about global warming, which was also a crowdfunded project.
Yeah, that’s how we did it as well. We appealed to people who were sympathetic to the story to be told. Then later, when we had some material and could show what we were trying to do, it was much easier to get people on board because we could demonstrate visually how we were trying to do it.
If you would have made a documentary about the Dalai Lama, don’t you think it would have been easier to get it made?
I don’t think the problem was so much that no one knew who he [Thich Nhat Hanh] was; it had more to do with how we wanted to tell the story. If we would have told the Dalai Lama story in the way we told the Thich Nhat Hanh story, I think we might still have had the same challenge. But he’s more popular, and there are many films about him, so I think maybe people would have said, ‘Ah, there’s another Dalai Lama film.’ While there has never been a film about Thich Nhat Hanh before, and there never will be. That’s it. He always said no to publicity, which is why this is such a unique story. And he had a stroke a few years ago, so this is it.
Do you remember your first meeting with him?
I do; we first met in the Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, in the mountains near San Diego, California, which was the first day of the beginning of this project. When I flew in there, I arrived at the monastery at midnight, and they let me stay in their library, where I slept on the floor because there were no spare beds. The next day, I woke up and went down the two hundred steps towards the meditation hall. At that particular time, I was reflecting on being a father—I was becoming a father for the second time—and I was thinking about educating my children; I was thinking about myself and how well do I know myself to be a father. So when I arrived at the meditation hall, I sat down, and Thich Nhat Hanh said, ‘The best education you can give your children, is to know yourself.’ I thought that was very interesting, as I never looked at education as an internal reflective experience. I always saw it as something you give to others. His point is, the more consciousness and the more awareness we have for ourselves, the more it will help us to educate. That was our first meeting, and I found that very profound. So after that, I knew I was definitely going to stay on this project. But at that time, we thought it would take about twelve months; we didn’t realize it would be a four-year project. Overall I think I spent about seven or eight months in the monastery in France, over a four-year period—each time I was there for one to three weeks.
Benedict Cumberbatch did the narration. Was it easy to convince him to collaborate on film?
It was. He had read about Thich Nhat Hanh, and that’s why we approached him. We knew that he would be sympathetic to the material and that he also understood it. So when he heard about the project, he was interested in participating in our film, and he did a great job.
Don’t you think “Walk With Me” has the potential for being nominated for an Academy Award?
Yes, that’s possible. We might apply and do a campaign. We’re considering it.
In the end, have you been able to shoot what you wanted to show in your film?
Yes, but that’s also why it took such a long time. After two years, we were not satisfied. We didn’t have the access we hoped for by then. Some people would say, ‘If you do an interview, you have access.’ But that’s not it. We want to be there in the kitchen, when they meet with their family, when they’re in the private moments of their life—that’s access. That’s what we’re trying to offer to the audience, and that’s why it took a long time to get that access. So halfway through, we were not happy with the access, and we carried on filming until we got what we needed. I was pretty persistent because in the future, I won’t be doing much documentaries anymore; I’ll focus more on fiction film. Now is the time for me to work with actors. In my documentaries, I always worked with characters, I don’t do interview documentaries, I do character-driven documentaries. But I feel now that the fiction form is better for me to explore the human condition than in a documentary.
By the time you start making feature films, is there anything in particular that you learned from your days as a documentary filmmaker? What was the learning process like?
That’s a good question. To be honest, when I think about the crossover between documentary and fiction, I think about the story environment. In other words, the fiction films that I would like to do would be very much inspired by my real-life experiences of the documentaries. Bringing in my documentary experience into the fiction film world, that’s what I would like to do. For example, I think about dramatizing “Black Gold,” and I have an idea for another fiction film inspired by some experiences I had when I was making “When China Met Africa.” So my documentaries are becoming the research for the stories I want to tell in fiction.
September 18, 2017
“Walk With Me” (2017, trailer)
BLACK GOLD (2006) DIR Marc J. Francis, Nick Francis SCR Marc J. Francis
WHEN CHINA MET AFRICA (2010) DIR Marc J. Francis, Nick Francis SCR – CAM Marc J. Francis MUS Florencia Di Concillo CAST Changming Liu
FORGIVE US (2013) DIR Anthony Haden-West, Yaniv Dabach SCR Anthony Haden-West ED Marc J. Francis
WALK WITH ME (2017) DIR – PROD – SCR – CAM Marc J. Francis, Max Pugh ED Marc J. Francis, Max Pugh, Nicolas Chaudeurge, Alan Mackay MUS Germaine Franco CAST Benedict Cumberbath (narration), Thich Nhat Hanh, Brother Pháp De, Brother Pháp Dung, Brother Pháp Huu, Sister Chân Không, Brother Pháp Linh, Sister Dang Nghiêm