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Unmistaken Child
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by Jay Seaver

"No mistake - this is interesting for both the faithful and the skeptical."
5 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2009: "Unmistaken Child" is an example of my favorite sort of documentary, the fly-on-the-wall film that looks and feels like a narrative feature. It tells its story by marshaling extraordinary access and patience, rather than cutting cutting away to various talking heads and bits of archive footage. What makes it an especially intriguing film, though, is a caption in the early going that suggests that the audience not take it at face value.

It's not the opening description of Buddhist monk Geshe Lama Konchog, who died recently at the age of 84. He was notable for spending 26 years in a cavern retreat, pondering spiritual matters. Nor is it the description of rinpoches, which means "the precious ones", reincarnated masters whom the other monks seek out. In the case of "Geshe-la", the man charged with finding his reincarnation will be Tenzin Zopa, who served as the passed masters heart disciple for twenty-one years, and whose quest will take him to the Tsim Valley on the border of Nepal and Tibet until he finds baby Tenzin Ngodrop.

The line that makes this all so intriguing comes just after we've been told that young Tenzin Zopa was the master's close companion for the last two decades of their lives: "Tenzin feels terribly alone."

Without this line, or with it merely implied, Unmistaken Child would still be an intriguing documentary. It follows Tenzin Zopa as he goes through the process of searching for the child, from consulting with Tagri Rinpoche, the senior relic master, and an astrological center in Taiwan. We see Zopa return to his home village and traverse great distances on foot, asking if there are children of the right age and examining them to see if they show the signs of being the reincarnated Geshe-la. There's the test in front of other lamas, encounters with the Dalai Lama, and more. There is just enough captioning to fill us in on background or religious details that might not be obvious, and Tenzin Zopa is a genial protagonist, charmingly full of self-doubt about his suitability for the task ahead. Director Nati Baratz shows us the process with clarity; one can come out of the film learning a lot.

With it explicit, though, we're given free reign to question what we see. Are Tenzin Zopa's actions what his faith demands, or are we looking at a man who, having devoted his life to the service of Geshe-la, will do anything to get him back? To a non-believer, the evidence that Tenzin Ngodrop is the master reincarnated may seem incredibly flimsy: He was born in the general direction that the smoke from Geshe Lama Kagong's cremation blew, his father's name begins with an "A" sound as predicted, and he clutched at the dead monk's rosary. But babies are born all the time, especially in rural areas, to parents with all manner of names, and some are grabby. Tenzin Zopa likely isn't consciously perpetrating any sort of fraud, but he's revealed to us as a fascinatingly complex character in this drama.

This gives the film a unique ability to examine faith and religion in a way that is both respectful and skeptical. It shows us the process of seeking and finding a rinpoche from start to finish in a fairly procedural way, but if Baratz has any opinion either way on whether or not wise men are returned to Earth in this way, he doesn't even seem to be pushing it passively. It is, after all, not hard to go from Tenzin Ngodrop identifying Geshe-la's possessions to there being something to the whole reincarnation thing, but even as he doesn't show how this could be orchestrated, he doesn't quite draw that line. We can supply the explanation that makes the most sense to us.

I spend a lot of time discussing this facet of the film because I am skeptical of such things, and it feels unusual to see a film cover this sort of religious material and not feel like it is either preaching to the converted or trying to win converts. That is far from its only good feature; it is a well-made film in many other ways. It is beautifully shot and amazingly well-edited; in terms of telling a story, it puts many fictional films without the restrictions of capturing actual events as they happen to shame. Because of those restrictions, it sometimes doesn't delve as deeply into certain facets as one might like (I might have liked to see more on the reaction of parents to the news that their children are reincarnated lamas and should be taken from them and raised in a monastery). It's got a bit of a whimsical side, too, and is pretty good about showing Ngodrop as a kid, rather than selecting the bits that might best link him to Geshe-la.

I'm not sure how many will have my perspective on this movie - most of the people who buy a ticket or rent it will be those more open to mysticism in general and Buddhism in particular than me. There's plenty for that audience to enjoy here, but that just serves to make it more remarkable: How many films about faith do such a fine job of serving all of the curious?

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originally posted: 05/09/09 09:37:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 RiverRun International Film Festival For more in the 2009 RiverRun International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival of Boston 2009 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2009 series, click here.

User Comments

9/09/08 Chris A touching movie that is magical whether you believe in reincarnation or not... 5 stars
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  DVD: 03-Nov-2009



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