Sunday, May 21, 2017

SIFF ’17: Becoming Who I Was

It is bad enough that the Chinese Communist Party interferes with the free practice of religion in Tibet. Maddingly, they are also complicating the reincarnation of a revered Rinpoche. The nine-year-old boy born Padma Angdu was determined to be the reincarnation of a revered teacher. The problem is, he lives in the northern Indian city of Ladakh, but his previous monastery was in Kham, Tibet. Of course, China tightly controls access to the occupied nation. The young Rinpoche would live a freer life in India, but he has karmic business in Tibet. That dilemma will preoccupy the boy and his godfather in Moon Chang-yong & Jeon Jin’s documentary, Becoming Who I Was (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival.

In many ways, Angdu (as he was once known and sort of still is to some) is a normal boy, who would like to be bigger and better at sports than he is. However, he understands he has a special place in the universe. In fact, Angdu claims he still has memories of his life in Kham. Unfortunately, when his former monastery fails to collect their venerated abbot (whether they even know of his existence remains unclear), the Ladakh monastery expels Angdu into the care of his new religious guardian, the devout Urgyan Rickzan, who also happens to be the only trained doctor in the region. (That seems highly unfair, considering they were the ones who proclaimed him a Rinpoche in the first place.)

Ultimately, Rickzan will take Angdu on a physical and spiritual pilgrimage, hoping to cross the border into Kham. However, weather and geopolitics are stacked against him. Frankly, even though Angdu will surely have greater educational opportunities than his peers, it is highly debatable whether his Rinpoche status will make him happier in the long-run.

Regardless, the relationship between Angdu and Rickzan is deeply moving. Even when circumstances are at their worst, they can still make each other laugh, which is indeed the Tibetan Buddhist way. The terrain might also be treacherous to trudge through, but is it ever cinematic. Moon and Jeon, acting as their own cinematographers and cameramen, frame some stunning visuals. Yet, the screen loves Angdu and Rickzan even more. They are both enormously charismatic and deeply sympathetic figures.

In many ways, Becoming provides a counterpoint to Nati Baratz’s widely screened documentary, Unmistaken Child. However, it is absolutely certain Angdu’s life would be immeasurably better if the PRC were not still holding Tibet as a captive nation (as would be true for nearly everyone in the sovereign country). Recommended as vivid portrait of the grueling demands of faith for contemporary Tibetan Buddhists, Becoming Who I Was screens this Wednesday (5/24), Thursday (5/25) and the following Thursday (6/1), during this year’s SIFF.