Doc of the Day: Unmistaken Child Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Unmistaken Child

Posted in Days of Docs by - March 28, 2012

 One Buddhist monk’s quest to find his master’s reincarnation.

Dir. Nati Baratz, 2009, 104 min

While I’ve never really “bought” Buddhism, I’ve always held immense respect for the overwhelming sense of serenity that seems to pervade the religion and its adherents. Movies, both fictional and factual, made by and about Eastern culture have traditionally been able to express peacefulness in film with much less effort than what comes from the American or European schools. It’s tricky to put stillness on-screen without boring the audience, but the cultural climate of Asia just seems to make it easy.

If you can forgive my stretch of positive racism, Unmistaken Child exemplifies these qualities. An Israeli directed the film, but it’s a story thoroughly immersed in Buddhism. The film follows Tibetan monk Tenzin Zopa on a quest of profound importance to him, both spiritually and personally. After the esteemed teacher Geshe Lama Konchong died in 2001, the search began for his reincarnation. Tenzin, a devoted follower of Konchong, was stunned when the Dalai Lama tasked him with taking the lead in the search.

The film lays out the process of finding Rinpoches, reincarnations of Tibetan masters. According to the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, a lama (teacher) who attains a high enough rank becomes a tulku, one who can choose what form they will take upon rebirth. Konchong was a tulku (the Dalai Lama is one as well). Tenzin must follow hints Konchong left behind before his death, the divinations of other monks, and his own instincts in his journey, which takes him across Tibet, Mongolia, and Nepal.

This is a road fraught with feeling for Tenzin, and to Western eyes it may seem alien. This isn’t just the inheritor of his master’s title he looks for; Tenzin seeks his master himself, in a new body. To someone coming from a culture where death is the end for your time on this Earth, it may seem strange. But that’s why we have empathy, right? Tenzin believes it, and he feels these conflicting emotions, and we feel for him. Even if you don’t believe in Buddhism, you root for him to succeed.

The movie is split into two parts, the first about the search for the Rinpoche, and the second following what happens after Tenzin believes he has found him. While the first half is somewhat repetitive and threatened to lose me, the second is enthralling. The focus shifts to this boy, supposedly a great teacher reborn. He is automatically revered by clergy and lay citizens alike, while having no idea what’s going on. Tenzin, his “Big Uncle” becomes his fast friend, and the only one to treat him like a normal toddler. Their relationship is a curious yet heartwarming thing to behold.

The road for the young Rinpoche begins shakily, as his parents face the difficult decision of handing him over to life in a monastery. Like most good Buddhists, they let him go, glad of the honor of siring an important person despite the heartache. Here is where the Western viewer will be even more strongly affected, because this is a practice most of us cannot fathom. Some may even feel outrage. But this is their way of life, and the film neither endorses nor condemns it, simply holding this up as the undeniably sobering and inspiring thing that it is.

I already mentioned the peace of Buddhism, and how it permeates this doc. It is eminently patient in its composition, both in the way it’s filmed and edited. Even the first half, which bored me a tad, is admittedly dead-on in conveying the serene kind of perseverance that Tenzin must embody in his task. This sense of zen seems to settle into every frame the way fog lays over the landscapes. I don’t have to mention that the photography of the mountains and valleys is breathtaking, right? I still will.

Unmistaken Child is a glimpse into a world we rarely even think about if the Dalai Lama isn’t on the news. It is surely a vastly different environment, although not at all an uninviting one. It’s a culture where love is in a constant cycle of renewal, as seen in the relationship between Tenzin Zopa and his unmistaken child. We might not “get” it, and we might not want this for ourselves, but there is more than one thing we can learn from them.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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