In this film, we follow a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Tenzin Zopa, as he searches to find the child who is the reincarnation of his recently deceased spiritual master. High-ranking monks and expert astrologers determine where the ‘unmistaken child’ will likely be found, and Tenzin Zopa sets off on mission.
The story is a true life religious quest, a modern odyssey that’s as profoundly meaningful and inherently mysterious as those tales telling of the search for, say, the Holy Grail.
In Unmistaken Child, however, we know from the start that the search will be successful, and we can just settle in and observe events and contemplate the Tibetan way of life in remote regions where people live pretty much as they did centuries ago.
Thanks to filmmaker Nati Baratz, we are welcomed inside mountain huts and monasteries where few Westerners have traveled.
While we’re contemplating the Tibetan outlook, it’s natural to wonder how Baratz, an Israeli Jew, came to spend six years of his life making a film about a Tibetan monk, reincarnation and the ‘unmistaken child.‘
Baratz tells me that he’d gone to Nepal to make quite a different film, a documentary about a group of Tibetan Jews. A lost tribe of Tibetan Jews.
Touched By A Monk
But Baratz became refocused when he and his wife attended a lecture given by Tenzin Zopa, who at the conclusion of his talk asked everyone to pray for the location of the reincarnation of Geshe Lama Konghog, the recently deceased teacher to whom he’d been a disciple since he was a young boy.
"Tenzin really touched me in a profound way,” says BARATZ. “He has a huge heart, and he’s very smart. And when I heard that he’s looking for the reincarnation of his master, I thought this is a movie I must make.
I was obsessed with the idea. I couldn't even sleep. I went to Tenzin and I said that I really respect him, but I don't know how I feel about reincarnation, and I really want to make this movie, I must make this movie about his trying to find the child.
But he said I had to ask Rinpoche for permission. Then it took four months of just waiting while they thought about it and found out everything about me--really checked me out. I even passed their astrology check.
Eventually, they gave me permission. Even then, it took time to build trust. It took Tenzin three months before he was willing to put on his neck mike. But after four or five months more, he started to call me ‘my brother.’
MERIN: How long were you following Tenzin?
BARATZ: The filming was five and a half years.
BARATZ: It was a long process because it took that long to find the child. The first time we see the child in the film, he’s one and a half years old. By the end of the film, he’s four and a half and now he’s six years old.
A Reel Look At Reincarnation
MERIN: Do you believe in the reincarnation?
BARATZ: I don't like to answer this question, because it seems pretentious for me--from the outside--to say anything about it. And I think it doesn't matter what I believe. The point is that Tenzin believes it. And I didn't make the film for that reason--but because I wanted to bring Tenzin to people, to let them see how he is. I think they can learn so much just from watching Tenzin, and seeing his maturation process in the film.
So, the focus was for me not whether they found the reincarnation in the child, but the chance to watch Tenzin, and see how he was changing while he was looking for the child, and when he found the child.
I really want the audience to think for themselves about this, too. I think that’s in keeping with the Buddha’s teachings. He said don't believe what I say, check everything for yourself.
Spiritual Objectivity -- Or Not
MERIN: Well, I sense that in the film, which is very mindful and contemplative. You keep yourself outside of the story and let the audience observe for themselves what is going on. Did the Tibetan Buddhist way of thinking influence you to approach the film that way.
BARATZ: Yes, you could say I was mindful about that. But that’s a hard question because the Tibetan idea about mind and mindfulness is very subtle. It’s not like thinking or intellect. It’s something very special. It‘s hard to understand exactly. And it is what is the reincarnation. It’s a different notion than the soul. I mean, from Tenzin’s perspective, it’s not only that this child can become a great teacher, he is actually the mind of Geshe Lama Konghog, he carries the seeds of his past karma and all the knowledge. It’s the same actual mind. He’s Buddha, from Tenzin‘s point of view.
You give it another interpretation. I give it another interpretation. But I don't feel that I can explain it, or tell people how Tenzin thinks. Or what they should think, or what I think, even. It’s best to just let them observe. I spent five and a half or six years working on this film, and now, in a way, I think it should speak for itself.
MERIN: Yes, I understand that. But, still, you've decided what we see and what we don't see because you're in charge of pointing the camera--and, by the way, the cinematography is exquisite. So even if you're outside the picture, outside the story, you really still influence our point of view. And, when you edit, you further shape the story for us, guide us through it. Unmistaken Child is an amazingly and mindfully unopinionated film, but you can’t say that it’s entirely objective.