Counter cultural monks

This is an interview I did with Nick Hamer whose powerful and moving documentary film Outside the City gives viewers an insight into the lives and faith of the Cistercian monks at Mount St Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire.

When did you first become aware of Mount St Bernard Abbey?

I discovered Mount St Bernard Abbey during the production of my last feature documentary Dear Albert(2014), which is about recovery from addiction. Several of the characters in Dear Albert were staying clean and sober by following the 12 step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, some of the members of these groups have retreats at Mount St Bernard Abbey.

Mount St Bernard Abbey is not actually featured in Dear Albert, but after hearing about it I spent some time there and became intrigued.

When you decided you wanted to make a film about the monks, what did you think its commercial appeal might be?

It’s wonderful being an independent documentary filmmaker, the task is essentially to follow my interests, and curiosity, and to be committed and passionate about what I discover. These are often long journeys; films can take several years to complete. I’m particularly interested in stories that have spirituality at their heart. Whenever I find something interesting I wonder if this could be my next documentary. But it’s never my decision alone, making a documentary like this is always a collaborative decision between filmmaker and subject. I found in approaching the monastery a warmth, a welcoming attitude, the community wanted to do this too.

The commercial appeal is not a direct consideration. I suppose as a filmmaker intuitively I know if it interests me then there’s an audience.

Why Mount St Bernard Abbey?

I live in Leicester, which is quite close to the monastery, and that’s key, because this film was not funded in any way by the film industry. I tried to attract the finance to make the film, but really this project was never compatible with the commercial imperative, so I financed it myself. I work on corporate and commercial films for about half of my time, which makes this whole thing possible.

Any good filmmaking is essentially a reaction or a response to the social context. This film is my response to our context, to our culture of consumerism, materialism, to the complexity of our lives, to the decline of the ancient religions in this country, to our taboos around death, and our denial of our mortality. Because that’s what makes these men interesting: they represent a counter cultural perspective, a different way of living. Of course the monastic life is not for everyone, but there’s certainly something we can all learn from these monks.

How do you think you managed to persuade the community to let you film?  Did the abbot like the idea from the start?

I spent 18 months developing access with the monastery. These monks have a tradition of hospitality, so I was warmly received. Abbot Fr Erik gave me a lot of time, getting to know each other. He gave me a reading and watching list: Andre Louf, Thomas Merton, Philip Groening, amongst others.

Eventually I started drafting a treatment (a document describing the type of film I would like to make), we went through numerous drafts until we were both happy. This was shared with the community. I was then invited to spend seven days living with the monks, not in the guesthouse, in the novitiate, something usually only reserved from priestly or monastic visitors. After my visit the community unanimously voted to allow me to film for 12 months.

What do you think was the reason the monks allowed you in?

I think when they found me to be trustworthy, respectful of their way of life, and passionate and committed to doing a good job, they were naturally open to the idea, almost like an act of service to an outsider. It’s important for the monks to reach out to the wider community, but at the same time to protect their cloistered lives. Somehow there was a synchronicity here. The most important thing that enabled the film to happen is the context. The monks are in a period of transition, it’s a historic moment in the life of the community, a change is taking place. This attracts me as a filmmaker, because it’s a story to tell, but also it’s important for the monks to document this defining moment.

How long did it take from idea to agreement through to actual shoot? Give me some idea of a timescale?

The whole project has lasted four years, that’s older than my youngest son.

Is there anything in particular that you felt you really learned about the contemplative life during that time?

There’s a common misconception that the monk is someone who has run away from the city to find a place of solitude to encounter God. That in escaping the city, the monk leaves behind the sins of the world: envy, gluttony, anger, greed, and so on. In fact, it is in the silence and solitude of the contemplative life that the monk truly discovers the sin of the world, on a much more profound level than in the city. Turning his attention interiorly, the monk discovers the sin of the world in his own heart, and at the same time as encountering the self he encounters the divine, and this is the place of transformation.

What impressed you most about the monks? 

I once asked Fr Erik what was his true purpose for being here. He told me it is to encounter God. I asked him how it was going. He chuckled and told me, yes, it is going. He went on to explain, there’s a tendency in our culture to imagine the spiritual life as a journey of acquisition, whereby we add to ourselves, virtues, knowledge, experience, but, in fact, it’s much more of a shedding, a stripping away.

If I ever doubt Fr Erik’s perspective on this, I just remind myself where we’re headed. We’re all on the same trajectory, to the grave. And we’re not taking anything with us. Either you’re ready for that or you’re not. I imagine myself waking up on the other side and wondering if I really exist, because of course I largely define my sense of self by my patterns of consumption, the things I own, what everyone else thinks of me. But who am I if all of this is stripped away, do I even exist? Well of course I do, there’s an essential me beneath it all, but do I ever encounter him? Not often. The monks understand this, and they believe that the direction to knowing yourself is the same direction as encountering the divine. They’re ready for the grave, and are ultimately buried without even a casket, just in their cowl.

How easy was it to get the monks to open up about the life they live (and perhaps struggles they might have or have had)?

As you watch Outside the Cityyou’ll sense an openness and intimacy, the monks speak freely about their lives and experiences. This is real. But in fact, the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject in documentary filmmaking is quite unique. We get to the heart of the matter quickly, the permission is there, no small talk. What’s the point? The stage is set, it’s the subjects opportunity to be heard, and the filmmaker is working to make the subject comfortable.

The monks switched from running a farm to brewing beer. How important is this to the future of the community?

Brewing beer is essential to the monks, it provides their income, they don’t receive any outside sources of finances from Church institutions. They make their own money and pay their own way, work is an essential part of their way of life.

What do you think the audience might learn from the film?

I’m trying to give the audience an experience of encounter with this community, rather than teach them something specific. I spent a year with the monks, and it’s difficult for me to say what I learnt, but I’ve certainly changed as a result. The film is never finished until the audience receives it, they bring their own context to the story and respond accordingly. The scenes of death will be particularly confronting for most of the audience, and I expect this to be a place of spiritual growth for them.

What about your own religious/spiritual background? How would you describe it?

My own religious background is in the Protestant, evangelical, charismatic church. I was raised as a Christian in this way. I’ve just turned 40, and over the last ten years I’ve become hungry for a different kind of spirituality. The mysticism and contemplative life of these monks in many ways represents a counter cultural perspective to my own religious context: a busy, noisy, full of certainty way of expressing the faith. I’m not looking for the right answer anymore, rather an authentic experience, I’ve certainly found that at Mount St Bernard Abbey.

What was the hardest part to film? 

It’s always hard to film when nothing is happening. The subject becomes really aware of the camera and the truth of the situation becomes hard to find. Fortunately, the monks are always engaged in doing something. It’s part of their commitment to live in the present tense. Their contemplative life, means that most of the time they are engaged, even when they’re doing nothing at all.

How did you become a documentary maker?

I became a filmmaker firstly through training, inspiration, ambition and determination. But ultimately, and most importantly defining myself as a filmmaker by doing the making of films. It’s difficult, there are no real professional qualifications in filmmaking in this country, and it’s an elitist industry. Most documentary filmmakers went to public schools, red brick universities, and are independently wealthy, giving them the freedom to pursue this artistic and social endeavor. I’m not against that, but I’m not from that kind of background, and I have not received funding during the production of my two feature documentaries, instead I made money doing commercial filmmaking which financed both my life and the films.

I’ve been a professional filmmaker for 16 years. My first film was a short documentary for ITV in 2004 about exorcist priests in the Church of England, it’s called Deliver us from evil. Since then I’ve worked all over the world for corporate clients, and NGOs, producing commissioned films. 

What was the monk’s reaction to the film?

The monks love the film. They laugh a lot. Places where other audiences wouldn’t laugh. This is testament to my success in capturing their unique characters. The look at each other and say, “Oh, Br Martin would say that” or “Well, of course, Fr Hilary wants to talk on that subject.” They laugh with delight at each other.