Saturday, April 03, 2010

A Monk’s Quest: Unmistaken Child

Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of reincarnation have been widely disseminated in the public consciousness through films like Bertolucci’s Little Buddha. The process is also one of many aspects of the Tibetan Buddhist faith the Chinese Communist government has encroached upon. Currently, the Dalai Lama recognizes one Panchen Lama, while the PRC recognizes another. Ostensibly for their own protection, the Communist government has been holding the rival Panchen Lama and his family incommunicado, ignoring the protests of the international community. At least one monk will not have to contend with such geopolitical complications as he pursues his quest to find his reincarnated mentor in Nati Baratz’s Unmistaken Child (trailer here), which airs this coming Wednesday as part of the current season of PBS’s Independent Lens.

Kopan Monastery in Nepal looks like a scene out of Lost Horizon. It is a different world, but it has been the only one Tenzin Zopa has known since he was seven years old. However, he will be leaving his sheltered monastic environment to find the reincarnation of Geshe Lama Konchog, his enlightened master for twenty-one years.

Divining signs, Tenzin is led back to his own home province, searching for a young boy that fits a few limited criteria. Eventually, he encounters a very bright little boy who has been watering the apple tree his master planted decades ago.

Tenzin and the senior Tibetan Rinpoches (“precious ones,” an honorific for monks of advanced rank and wisdom) set about evaluating their young candidate. Though the initial testing process—the selection of items potential reincarnates recognize from their previous lives—is well established in the popular media, greater explanation would have been helpful for other assorted rituals and tests throughout the process. However, Baratz’s approach is strictly observational, allowing no voiceovers or talking head commentary to intrude on the almost mystical events on-screen.

Much in the tradition of Into Great Silence, Unmistaken is a quiet film that treats the faith of its subjects with scrupulous respect. Baratz captures some striking visuals, but at times he seems oblivious to the human drama unfolding around him. Watching his film, it seems highly debatable whether it is really in the best interest of a two or three year old boy to leave his family to join the secluded monastery (despite his family’s hardscrabble living conditions).

Both Tenzin and his small contender are surprisingly endearing figures in Unmistaken. One hopes they both find happiness and enlightenment when watching the film. Still, there is a lingering ambivalence about the events in question that Baratz declines to delve into too deeply. Granted remarkable access, Baratz has produced a heartfelt (and sometimes compelling) valentine to Tibetan Buddhism. It runs on Independent Lens this Wednesday (4/7) on most PBS outlets (check those local listings).