With the mountains of Tibet as a setting, a group as elusive as the Buddhist monks who occupy that land as a subject, and a conceivably endless search for a reincarnated master as a mission, director Nati Baratz is given every opportunity to exploit this Eastern culture in his breakout documentary, Unmistaken Child. Thankfully, his sensibility is much more refined than that. Instead, Mr. Baratz and his team have crafted a thought-provoking, emotional journey of the highest regard.
Following the death of Geshe Lama Konchong in 2001, the master’s disciple for twenty-one years, Tenzin Zopa, is charged with searching for the Lama’s reincarnation. Having lived in the service of Lama Konchong for twenty-one years, he is selected because it is believed that someone so close to the Lama will be able to recognize him even in the body of a child. This is a story of emotional redemption and religious discovery, but it is also a detective story. Tenzin has very few clues to go on, but that does not weaken his resolve as he heads to the Tsum Valley of Tibet to seek out his master in a new form.
Forgoing many of the simpler convetions of documentary filmmaking, the story slowly reveals itself through the eyes of Tenzin. There is no narration, no staged reveals, very few graphics except when required contextually, and the only interview is with Tenzin. The audience sees only as much as he does on his journey. Emotionally, the film also follows the same sine curve as Tenzin. When he is skeptical, so are we; when he is excited, so are we; when he is frustrated, overjoyed, nervous, the film always follows suit.
The film is also beautiful. Shot on video, Unmistaken Child, has a certain washed out feeling to it. This is not a travel film by any means. Even though the sweeping vistas are enticing, there isn’t a moment in the film when you feel as though Mr. Baratz and his team are there for the sights. The emotional progression is of the utmost importance to the filmmakers. The land is a reflection of the story; the deeper into the mountains Tenzin goes, the more formidible his search seems to become.
I will not go into the particulars of what happens by the end of the film, but I promise it is satisfying. We witness the fascinating rituals of a distant people, but that is far from the point of Unmistaken Child. If nothing else, it is a case for the inherent innocence of humanity. Tenzin is articulate and learned, but he is also a big kid. His interaction with all of the children he seeks out is endearing. He allows himelf to be goofy, playing with the children, never letting on that this task is the most difficult he has ever approached.
Viewers of this film will see Buddhism in a new light, perhaps much closer to their own beliefs than they expect. The universality of human emotion is what is really on display here. Mr. Baratz put a half decade of his life into making this film and we are the benefactors. Perhaps it will be a long time until he makes another, but if he puts only a fraction of the care he put into Unmistaken Child, you can be certain that it will be another compelling piece.
Unmistaken Child premiered in the U.S. yesterday at Film Forum in New York City and will slowly make its way to the rest of the country. For more information visit the film’s official site.