Outside the City is a documentary film about the life of Mount St Bernard Abbey, Leicestershire, as the community moves from dairy farming to brewing Britain’s first Trappist beer, Tynt Meadow.
Authentic Trappist beer – that is, beer made by Trappist monks in their monastery – is brewed in only 14 abbeys in the world: six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, and one each in Austria, Italy, France, Spain, the United States, and now England.
Currently on selected cinema release in the UK, Outside the City is Nick Hamer’s second feature documentary. His first, Dear Albert (2014), examined drug addiction.
So what was it that attracted him to make a film about a monastery?
“I’m particularly interested in stories that have spirituality at their heart,” he told me. “I discovered Mount St Bernard Abbey during the production of Dear Albert. Several participants in that film were staying clean and sober by following the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and some of them had retreats at Mount St Bernard Abbey.”
It took Hamer 18 months to get agreement from the monastery to film. “Abbot Erik Varden gave me a lot of time,” says Hamer, who was grateful for the abbot’s generosity and openness. Eventually, Hamer began drafting a plan of what the film might look and sound like. “We went through numerous drafts,” he said, “until we were both happy.” This was shared with the community. Then, after a week-long stay in the monastery’s novitiate, Hamer received the community’s unanimous vote to allow him to film their life over 12 months.
Hamer’s choice of monastery was dictated by proximity. “I live in Leicester, which is quite close to the monastery,” he says. Mount St Bernard is, in fact, the only Trappist monastery in England. “I tried to attract finance to make the film, but really this project was never compatible with the commercial world, so I financed it myself.”
Unlike a feature film, a documentary is dependent on the life happening in front of the camera. So how did Hamer go about filming the contemplative life of Mount St Bernard? “It’s always hard to film when nothing is happening,” he reflects. “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 lives mean that most of the time they are engaged, even when they’re doing nothing at all.”
Although a Christian, Hamer is not Catholic. “I’ve just turned 40, and over the past 10 years I’ve become hungry for a different kind of spirituality. The mysticism and contemplative life of these monks in many ways represent a counter-cultural perspective to my own religious context. I’m not looking for the right answer any more. Rather, an authentic experience. And I’ve certainly found that at Mount St Bernard Abbey.”
Hamer views Outside the City as a “reaction to the social context” of modern Britain. “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 religion 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. What was the monks’ true purpose being at Mount St Bernard, Hamer asked the abbot. The reply was simple: to encounter God. “I asked him how it was going. He chuckled and said: ‘Yes, it is going,’ and then he went on to explain that 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.”
The burial of two monks during the film is a reminder of the impermanence of life in this world. “We’re all on the same trajectory to the grave. And we’re not taking anything with us. Either you’re ready for that [death] or you’re not,” says Hamer. “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 monastic cowl … These monks are aware of themselves and their mortality. I think this makes for a humble group of men.
“I can see that their way of life, this 1,500-year-old rule, these spiritual disciplines, enable them to serve the world through prayer.”
KV Turley is a writer and film-maker
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