The Zen of Filmmaking: A Balance of Heart & Mind

by Xuan Vu © 2006


This monograph is organized in a chronological manner, according to my experiences in the past three years in the fields of philosophy and documentary filmmaking, the influences and encounters of which have helped shape my worldview as well as narrow my scope of interest in my studies.

The first chapter encompasses my first year-and-a-half as an undergraduate student in the University Professors Program. In this chapter, I trace the transformation that occurred in my mindset: from an initial fixation on denouncing the Catholic Church and an unyielding adherence to Western principles of scientific reason and logic, to a sense of fascination and awe in the spiritual dimensions of the universe and an open acceptance of Eastern ways of thought. This change came about through both my intellectual studies in philosophy and my practical internship experience in the documentary industry.

The next chapter covers the legacy that the earliest documentary filmmakers had left for contemporary filmmakers to build upon. The debate between art and function, form and content, picture and sound, are still a source of the differing approaches to filmmaking today. Issues concerning target audience and “truth” also play roles in shaping the final product of a film. The way a filmmaker takes these factors into consideration determine whether or not their film is successful in conveying their original intention.

In Chapter III, I discuss the process of pre-production, from my initial documentary proposal to the ethnographic research that I gathered about the Cambridge Zen Center’s residence requirements and about two of its residents.

The fourth chapter delves into the topic of Zen. In this chapter I provide a brief history of Zen, speculate on the reasons for Zen’s appeal to American practitioners, explain the main principles of Zen philosophy, and discuss the psychological and neurological benefits of Zen meditation.

The fifth chapter concerns the production phase of my film, in which I revise my initial documentary proposal twice, provide some background and history of the Cambridge Zen Center, compare Korean Zen practice to that in America, and reflect on the production process in the context of influences from established ethnographic filmmakers and of the issue of collaboration.

In Chapter VI, I discuss the post-production phase, in which I look to Jean Rouch’s and David MacDougall’s observational styles of filmmaking for inspiration. This chapter also compares my filmic approach with that of another film on American Zen Buddhism, called One Precept. My critical reviews about these ethnographic films bring the reader back to the earlier debates between form and content, words and action. At the end of the post-production phase, I learn to let go of my fixation on the words as well as of my need to control the course of the film.

The next chapter encompasses the six months after the post-production phase, when the final cut emerges after developments occur for myself and for my subjects.

The final chapter provides a critical review of my film, arrived at through multiple private and public screenings of the film. I analyze each scene technically and by how it fits in the context of the larger whole.

Thus, in a matter of three years, I found my faith and calling in life. What more could you ask from a college experience?

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