Thursday, October 27, 2011

Family Business: My Reincarnation

Like many fathers, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu would like his son to carry on his trade. As a teacher of Tibetan Buddhist wisdom, his business is highly specialized. However, Yeshi Silvano Namkhai was not simply born into it, he was reincarnated. Whether the son will accept his destiny as his calling is not initially clear in Jennifer Fox’s documentary My Reincarnation (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche just barely escaped the Chinese military in 1959. Though a close associate of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, the Rinpoche never settled into monastic life, preferring to take his Dzogchen message out into the world. That worldly world is the only one his son has ever known. Born in Italy, the western-centric professional did not feel a cosmic affinity for his birthright, despite having been recognized as the reincarnation of his great uncle, Khyentse Rinpoche Chokyi Wangchuk, a revered Tibetan Buddhist teacher.

Filmed over a twenty year period (during which Fox served as secretary to the Dzogchen teacher for several years), Reincarnation represents quite an investment of time and passion for the filmmaker, but that intimate commitment might have affected her perspective. There has been a mini-bumper crop of somewhat thematically related documentaries on Tibetan Buddhists, including the outstanding Journey from Zanskar and Tibet in Song, as well as the still quite good Unmistaken Child. Yet, even without these films raising the comparative stakes, most audiences seeking to learn about Tibetan Buddhism and the spirit of those who keep the faith would be discouraged by Reincarnation’s surface level focus.

Yes, we hear some of the father’s teachings, but mostly New Age compatible sound bites. The Chinese interference with Tibetan Buddhism however, is largely ignored, despite the long shadow it casts over both men’s lives. Frustratingly, Fox often seems on the brink of potentially rewarding avenues of inquiry, only to promptly close them off. Perhaps the most glaring example comes when the son finally makes a pilgrimage to Tibet, where he has a dream of the Khyentse Rinpoche’s painful final days in a Chinese prison. Wait, what? The late Rinpoche was tortured to death by the Chinese? At this point, viewers have the sinking feeling Fox has not simply buried her lede, she has made her film about the wrong people.

The awkward truth is Yeshe the son, her primary protagonist, is perfectly pleasant and well meaning, but not especially interesting (at least not as he is presented here). Still, there is a scene of the Rinpoche and Yeshe in speedos, so at least the film has something for the ladies.

Reincarnation is the sort of film viewers will feel guilty about not loving. It is not their fault. They can have boundless respect for the film’s subjects, but not be swept up in their father-son drama. For dedicated students of the spiritual family, it opens tomorrow (10/28) at the Cinema Village.