Unmistaken Child: Film Review on Greencine
I wrote a new film review for Greencine.com recently:
Reviewer: Walt Opie
Rating (out of 5): ****
You don't necessarily have to believe in reincarnation to practice Buddhism, nor to appreciate Unmistaken Child (2008), an engaging documentary on this subject by Israeli director Nati Baratz. Now out on DVD after a very brief outing in theaters, this film was shot beautifully by a small crew (often just Baratz himself) who serve as our proverbial "fly on the wall," allowing us incredible access into the inner workings of the Tibetan Buddhist system of picking reincarnated lamas. Call it Kundun meets Hoop Dreams and you might start to get the idea.
Describing the story of this film almost takes away from it, as the real pleasures are to be enjoyed in the simple moments along the way. But the gist of it is this: Unmistaken Child tells the true account of the search by an extremely devoted and quietly charming young Tibetan monk, Tenzin Zopa, for the reincarnation of his recently deceased 84-year-old master, Geshe Lama Konchog. The master was deeply revered for having spent 26 years practicing alone in a mountain cave (Tibetans apparently referred to him as "the modern-day Milarepa" which is high praise indeed). In the film, we go from the back corridors of the Tibetan government-in-exile's Dharamsala, India offices to the actual cave, or what's left of it, where Lama Konchog once lived. We tag along as Tenzin Zopa sets off on his rather overwhelming mission to find a young child who can be "unmistakenly" identified as the reincarnation of his beloved teacher. We watch him interview young children and their families in hope of discovering the correct signs that point back to his master. And we see what happens once a young boy has finally been selected, even watching as the boy gets his head shaved for the first time, which doesn't seem to go as smoothly as Tenzin Zopa expected.
In the director's press notes on the making of his film he notes how fortunate he was just to get permission from another high lama to film at all, and then had to agree not to show the footage to anyone until after the Dalai Lama (who does make a brief appearance here) had officially confirmed the reincarnation depicted in the film. As Baratz writes, "For three years, I had to keep this movie a secret, which was an extremely complicated issue, since I had to finance all the filming privately, and could show the materials to no one."
I am grateful to Baratz for sticking it out, because his film shows us in stunning detail what it means to search for, and perhaps find, a reincarnated master from the viewpoint of the Tibetans themselves. It's a rare gift, whether you choose to accept its core assumption of reincarnation or not. Unmistaken Child is a truly fascinating peek behind the scenes into Tibetan Buddhist culture as it is being carried out even today.
Walt Opie is a Bay Area writer and a practicing Buddhist in the Theravada tradition. He also currently serves as Communications Coordinator at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Link