visions of zen

The story, as told by Rosenbush, goes something like this: “I worked briefly with David Mamet in Boston many years ago and later directed the Chicago premiere of one of his plays. When I decided to shift my focus from theatre to film and move to L.A., I asked his advice. He told me not to waste my time trying to ”˜break in’ the front door of Hollywood, trying to get an agent, sell scripts. Many talented people waste years of their lives trying to penetrate a system that is designed to say no to almost everyone. ”˜If you’re really serious about being a filmmaker,’ Mamet said, ”˜just con someone out of some money and make a damn film.’ ”¯As it turns out, I didn’t need to con anyone, but I did decide to do it myself and just make a film. Ironically enough, I’m now getting phone calls from Hollywood.”

Zen Noir — independently produced, toured theatres nationally and received festival awards — tells an intelligent and thought-provoking story of a detective investigating a death at a Buddhist temple. Offering a twist in the detective film genre, the private eye working the case realizes he is at the center of the real mystery, one so immense it might not be possible to solve.

For director Rosenbush, a student of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Vietnamese Zen Buddhism, the film is more than an indie success story. The Zen practitioner has created a moving meditation on how an artist – and his or her audience — can explore a personal spiritual quest within a contemporary medium such as film, while overcoming pitfalls that could amount to the equivalent of spiritual suicide.

“I came up with the basic premise for the film while meditating about 13 years ago,” Rosenbush says in an interview. “I really liked the idea of a Film Noir type detective going to solve one mystery, but finding a much bigger, more existential and much more personal mystery that couldn’t be solved with logic. It wasn’t until a few years later, after my Buddhist practice had helped me through a very dark time in my life, that I realized the film would ultimately be about loss and impermanence, and how we deal with them.”

Despite positive reviews, Zen Noir is not a popcorn film. Strong performances (including one from veteran actor Kim Chan) and solid filmmaking technique actually bring attention to the fact that this movie lacks a conventional gloss and storyline. Rosenbush is more than fine with that.

“I think imagination is really what’s at stake here,” he says. “When you read a book, you get to bring your own images and feelings to the table; same thing when you listen to music. You get to participate in the experience. But most mainstream films just present you with a neat, tidy story with no room left for interpretation and no way for you as an audience member to become involved on a deeper level. I really liked the idea of creating a film that can be more of a true mystery, that wouldn’t answer all the questions and that would challenge the audience to actively engage in the unfolding of the story.”Perhaps it is a reflection of his meditation practice that Rosenbush finds the movie industry ripe with spiritual opportunities.

“In a Zen sense, filmmaking is as spiritual as anything else. You put all of your heart and soul and attention into what you’re doing and ultimately, if you’re lucky the film can transcend what you originally had in mind,” Rosenbush says. “Making an independent film, spiritual or not, requires an ongoing process of conscious manifestation. Making a film and getting it out into the world is like climbing a mountain. If you believe it’s impossible, then it’ll be impossible. You need to keep the vision alive in your mind of why you started in the first place, and you need to keep believing in yourself and what you’re doing, no matter what. Because ultimately, you’re believing something into existence.”

DVD available at 



YouTube video

Read next >> contemplating having a second child