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Once Israeli director Nati Baratz (Tel Aviv-Kyrgyzstan, Noches) learned about the upcoming search for the reincarnation of a world-renowned, beloved Tibetan master, he committed four years of his life to documenting the search. The result is an unforgettable journey through remote Tibetan villages, as seen through the eyes of a devoted disciple.
As the film opens at the Film Forum in New York City, Baratz shares his remarkable tale of patience, balance, and discovery.
In 2002, I traveled to Tibet with my wife Liat. During our last month, we cycled 800 kilometers from Tibet’s capital city Lhasa to Katmandu, Nepal, to attend a one-month course to deepen our understanding of Tibetan Buddhism at Kopan Monastery. At the end of the course, a monk named Tenzin Zopa came to talk about his life experience with his master, Geshe Lama Konchog, who had recently passed away. Tenzin spoke of his master with great love, and his big heart, modesty and humor were overwhelming.
If he had not concluded his talk with a request from us to pray for the swift return of his master’s reincarnation, it could have been just another inspiring night in Asia, but it was not—I could not sleep the whole night, realizing that this great young man was actually searching for his master’s reincarnation. This was a story that had to be turned into a movie.
In the morning I snuck out for a cigarette outside the monastery gate and shared my feelings with Liat. She had tears in her eyes, “What are you waiting for? This is the film you’ve been looking for all these years.” At the time, I was far from realizing how fortunate I really was.
I could never imagine that this thin and modest monk was actually a philosophical prodigy. That his master meditated for 26 years in total isolation in a snowy mountain cave, and was considered by many as the greatest Tibetan meditator of our time (he is called the “modern-may Milarepa” by the Tibetans). That Geshe-La was actually the one who saved Tenzin’s life when he was born and physically delivered him. I knew that since age of seven, for 21 years, he had never left his sight, but did not realize what the serving and devotion meant, not to mention faith.
After a few days I met with Tenzin and shared with him my wishes for making this film in a very direct way… I told him that I am not a formal Buddhist, but I feel that the preservation and spreading of Tibetan Buddhism is important to the entire world civilization. I said that in order to make this film I would need his full cooperation and all access, including meetings with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, if and when it comes to that.
Tenzin replied that he thought it was a very good idea, and that he also wished to expose his master to as many people as possible, but at the same time he was worried that it would be too much for me to handle. He tried to convince me to give up: “What if we never find a reincarnation? What if it takes 20 years?”
I was lucky enough to answer that I was willing to take all the risks, with a very happy mind, but there was only one thing I truly needed—his full cooperation. After a long break Tenzin replied, “OK, but you have to ask for Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s permission. You can tell him that I agree!”
It took me a few months until I got final permission from the very high-ranking, busy lama. They tested my patience (hours of waiting for meetings) and my persistence (three 30-hour bus rides). When we discussed the matter further, they told me that I could not show the rushes to anyone until the final confirmation of the reincarnation. I promised to do so, knowing how generous and incredible their approval was to allow me into the most holy rooms of their religion and tradition.
For three years, I had to keep this movie a secret, which was an extremely complicated issue, since I had to finance all the filming privately, and could show the materials to no one.
I spent four years with Tenzin—long months on the road, wild nature; while searching, we shared with him the tent and his monastery room. We come from such different worlds and cultures, which made our relationship one that required a great deal of patience and learning from both sides. The camera and I became intimate participants in Tenzin’s secret quest. I think it took Tenzin more than six months to feel at ease with the camera and to truly trust me, and a year later when he first called me “my brother” (as he does to this day), I was in tears.
I was aware of the mythical and visual power of this quest, which crossed countries and entered the most secret unrevealed places of Tibetan tradition. The heart of this film was the faith and love of Tenzin Zopa, and this is what made the film “larger than life.” For me, Tenzin’s relationship with GLK and the boy reincarnation is an ultimate love story.
In the film I tried to show the complexity of holy and earthly, joy and sadness, which are mixed together. I tried to give the audience the right distance and opportunity to gain their own understanding and belief regarding the subject matter.
In a very systematic way, from the middle of the film, the plot continuously shifts from earthly scene to magical scene, happy scene to sad scene, up until the end. It was important for me to keep the audience emotionally and thematically challenged, thus encouraging them to contemplate rather than just experience. This style was also inspired from Buddha’s teachings.
Buddha asked his disciples not to believe anything he says, but to check everything themselves.
Unmistaken Child opens at Film Forum Wednesday, June 3. Click here for ticket information.
Nati Baratz will be present for Q&A following the 8:00 pm screening on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday (June 3-5).