The Buddhist concept of reincarnation, while both mysterious and enchanting, is hard for most westerners to grasp. UNMISTAKEN CHILD follows the 4-year search for the reincarnation of Lama Konchog, a world-renowned Tibetan master who passed away in 2001 at age 84. The Dalai Lama charges the deceased monk’s devoted disciple, Tenzin Zopa (who had been in his service since the age of seven), to search for his master’s reincarnation.
Tenzin sets off on this unforgettable quest on foot, mule and even helicopter, through breathtaking landscapes and remote traditional Tibetan villages. Along the way Tenzin listens to stories about young children with special characteristics, and performs rarely seen ritualistic tests designed to determine the likelihood of reincarnation. He eventually presents the child he believes to be his reincarnated master to the Dalai Lama so that he can make the final decision.
Nati Baratz was born in Jerusalem, Israel. He has been working as a freelance director and producer since graduating from the Film School at Tel-Aviv University in 2000. His most notable films include TEL AVIV-KYRGYZSTAN (2001) and NOCHES (2004). Both documentaries were broadcast on TV in Israel.
Bijan Tehrani: How did you first come across the subject of the Unmistaken Child?
Nati Baratz: Actually I was working on another film about Orthodox Jews who are looking for a hidden Jewish Tibetan tribe in Tibet. During the course of the research I went to Nepal to take a one month meditation course to deepen my understanding of Buddhism. At the end of the course Tenzin Zopa gave a talk about his life and about his master who had just died. He really captured me with his humor and faith, and he was really amazing. At the end of the talk he asked us all to pray for the swift and unmistaken return of his master. I said “Oh my God, this amazing character is going to look for the reincarnation of his master.” I could not sleep all night, and I drew the outline of the possible movie. Then I started a long process of four months until I got approval from the Tibetan leadership to make this film.
BT: Did you follow the actual story step-by-step after that?
NB: You know, it was five and a half years of filmmaking. Since I started I tried to be in every important event. I lived many months with monks on location, and during the peek of the shooting I moved with my wife and my two years old daughter to India to be close to Tenzin. I tried to follow every incident that was connected to the reincarnation. With this kind of movie you have to live long months with these people.
BT: How challenging was doing this project?
NB: The most challenging thing was to get people to trust you; not just Tenzin Zopa but many other people. Because they come from a different culture and they were letting you into the most hidden part of their religion and life. Monks should be modest and not be near cameras or be in a film, so the trust was a major challenge in this movie. Also, the shooting was physically challenging, for example most of the movie was shot in a very remote place with no electricity or phone and at high altitude. A few times during the course of the movie I suffered from altitude sickness. Sometimes we crossed cliffs that were narrower than the width of our shoes. We had to build a solar charger to charge batteries. Another thing was that we had to remain a very small team, so it was maximum of two people, me and the camera man.
BT: There is a great devotion of the filmmaker in this film. I felt like a believer made this film, and it influences the audience. This is a documentary, but it really influences the belief of the audience. Do you believe in reincarnation?
NB: Actually, this is not a matter that interests me. When I started the film I told Tenzin that I am not sure if I believe in reincarnation. But I think that the whole movie, at least from the half till the end, challenges the audience. It shows them one thing and then the other side; in one scene you see a normal child, and in another scene you see a holly child. This is to encourage the audience to contemplate and think instead of just experience, and I wanted the audience to develop their own ideas regarding what they see. Of course there is a tendency towards Tenzin’s point of view.
BT: How did you create the visual style of the film? It has a smooth flow, which is amazing considering the difficult conditions you had for filming.
NB: First of all, sometimes I shoot myself, and I had a few things that I wanted to achieve. I wanted to shoot the film with hand held camera. I wanted to create a contradiction between extreme long shots and close-ups to show the human experience in that story. I wanted it to have a free style, and wanted to differentiate this movie from most of the films about this kind of subjects, which show only the aesthetic nature of the region. I didn’t want to let the colorful nature of the material to take away from the human drama.
BT: How much time was spent on editing?
NB: I shoot maybe two hundred and eighty hours of footage. It was a year of editing.
BT: Did you show this film to the monks?
NB: When the film opened I asked the monk, Tenzin to see it, and he didn’t want to see it, but I sent them a copy. I showed him a few scenes during the filming that I thought might be a problem and I wanted to get his approval, like the scene where he is crying. Tenzin was at the Berlin Film Festival.
BT: How was the reaction of the audience in these festivals?
NB: I am very happy about it. I could not expect more from this film. In Berlin we had a full house of five hundred people for all the five screenings we had.
BT: There is a scene in the film that I felt that the monks may have rejected, which is the scene when the monks shaved the kid’s head while he was crying.
NB: Actually the brother of the monk was trying to convince me not to shoot that scene. But no, they did not object to it. Tenzin is a very open minded person, and he also trusted me as a filmmaker. If I only did a film that was only about the beauty of the Tibetan areas, then they would not want to be in that. My intention was to make a movie for Westerner’s who don’t understand anything about Buddhism, and I explained this to Tenzin and he accepted it. He wanted to show the hardship. I am sure it is hard for him, but let me tell you that in Berlin we talked and he told me that there is only one scene in the film that he regretted was in the film. He told me it was the scene with the Dalai Lama.
BT: Oh. I would have thought that would be a scene that he would want in the film.
NB: No, because what is happening in the scene is that the Dalai Lama is giving a scarf to the boy, and the boy refuses to take it and he puts it on the Dalai Lama’s head. It is insulting to the Dalai Lama. And Tibetan’s notice that and when they see it they burst in laughter, because only a child could do it to the Dalai Lama. But after two more screenings Tenzin told me that it was OK, and it was working well, and that I should leave the scene. But Tenzin is very special and a very smart person, and not an ordinary character. He really understands things.
BT: Has the Dalai Lama seen the finished film?
NB: He has not yet, but I hope he will see it soon.
BT: Have you been back to Tibet since this film?
NB: No, not yet.
BT: What is your next project?
NB: It is starts in a restaurant in New York, and from there it spreads from all over the world, and shows division in the world in a dramatic and personal way. This is my next project in general.