On a rainy Friday afternoon, I managed to spend some time with Israeli filmmaker Nati Baratz. We met at Manhattan’s Film Forum, where his film, Unmistaken Child, began it’s U.S. theatrical tour last Wednesday and will be playing there through Tuesday, June 16th. Clutching an umbrella that flopped in and out which he offered me as a canopy repeatedly, he and I chatted about his career, his film, and the current state of documentary cinema.
The film is his first theatrical venture. A graduate of Tel Aviv University’s film program, Mr. Baratz made two documentaries for television, but as he tells it, he was a hired gun on those projects, taking them on in an effort to keep his chops up. Unmistaken Child follows the buddhist monk Tenzin Zopa on his search for the reincarnation of his late master, Geshe Lama Konchong. For more specifics, you can read the candler blog’s review, but you would do better to just go see the film.
We began to discuss the positive critical reception of his film, though Mr. Baratz was quick to point out that not all viewers are pleased with his work. “ Some people want me to give answers, to give explanations, like more conventional documetaries. This is fair enough, but it’s not the film I made.”He’s right. Unmistaken Child features only sparse interviews with the main subject, Mr. Zopa, and a handful of overlayed text, giving the viewer the bare minimum of literal context. “People want me to criticize things, to go deeper. Most don’t even realize how much information there actually is in the piece, because I made this for Westerners, not Buddhists.”
In 1993, Nati Baratz took his first trip to Tibet and was immediately enchanted. “I liked the people. Then, after that, I liked the Buddhism. I am not a Buddhist, but I like their philosophy, their psychology.” He was initially drawn to Tibet because of the civil rights deadlock that that nation has been in with China, though this is not evidenced in his film. I asked him why, if this is so important to him, is there no political edge to his film. “My way of making activist cinema is something I learned from Buddhism. If you shout and if you blame, then you only get in return blames and shouting. So I don’t think this kind of activist movie does good work. My film is activist in a Buddhist way. I just show the beauty, I show the quality of the Tibetans. There is a drama. There are also very hard scenes, not everything is nice and happy, not at all. There are also things that people can criticize the Tibetans about doing, but overall, when you follow Tenzin Zopa, an extraordinary human being, then I think the general effect is affection toward the Tibetan people. This is my way of making activist cinema.”
For five years, Unmistaken Child was the centerpiece of Mr. Baratz’s life. He moved his family to India halfway through shooting in an effort to save money on airfare. Due to an agreement he had made early on with Tenzin Zopa, he was unable to show the footage to anyone for the first two years of shooting, so the project was completely self-financed. At the beginning, naturally, he was scared. Mr. Zopa would only allow Nati access if he would agree to see the process through to completion, no matter how long it would take to find the reincarnation. However, he found relief once Mr. Zopa encountered a young boy also named Tenzin, who would become the focal point of the film’s search for the reincarnated master. “When I returned with these rushes, I knew that everything would be fine. I knew I had a film that would be great, that I could only screw it up. From that moment, I invested everything I had.”
I told Mr. Baratz that his film is the first Israeli film I can think of to cross the Atlantic that is neither in Hebrew nor Starring Israelis. He laughed. “I had no idea, I am not an expert on this.” Anytime I would bring up his nationality, the conversation would quickly veer in another direction. Mr. Baratz views himself as a citizen of the world. When I drew the parallel between the situation in the Middle East and the situation in Tibet, he was taken aback, as though the parallel had never occurred to him. “The endless cycle of blood in Israel really frustrates you; you feel really hopeless, so you are looking for a breakthrough. For me, that breakthrough was g0ing to Tibet. To see the Tibetans’ non-violent struggle for independence, it’s amazingly inspiring for someone coming from the Middle East.”
As for Mr. Baratz’s influences for making this film, he repeatedly invoked the names of Robert Flaherty and John Grierson when asked about it. “I like their documentary tradition, spending a long times in places, getting to know people. Flaherty and Grierson also dramatized their films without narration. What I am doing now is going back to the roots of documentary.” In general, however, he has been influenced more by fiction films than by non-fiction. “Let me tell you something surprising. One inspiration for this ?lm was Dogme 95, specifically Breaking the Waves by Von Trier. The feeling, the fact that it doesn?t matter if you use simple camera. The thing that matters is the way you think of the frames.”
During a question and answer session at one of the recent screenings, Nati mentioned Star Wars as another influence. He smiles. “ I use a classic narrative myth. Hero with A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. It?s classical Joseph Campbell structure. The hero is in his ordinary world. His master dies. He is called to a mission. He refuses to go to the mission. Then mentors come and teach him how to go. Then he goes. You can just see the structure. Of course you play with it because the culture is so different and I had so many gaps to ?ll.”
We had been chatting in the Film Forum lobby as the crowd lined up to see his film. An usher came and asked, loudly, for all people in line to see Unmistaken Child to please squeeze in against the wall to make room for more. “This is all for Unmistaken Child?” Mr. Baratz asked, wide-eyed and curious. “Good.” In hoping for a sold out crowd, he is not at all concerned with his box office appeal. The film is doing fine business and has received awards and praise the world over. Instead, he scans the crowd as a man on a mission. “The film has already been picked up by major television stations. Millions and millions will spend 104 minutes with Tenzin Zopa, so it’s great. After seeing this film, I believe they will keep a small place in their hearts for the Tibetan people.”
“I am naive,” he went on to say, “in a way, you have to be to make documentary films; to make films in general. I want to change the world. I hope, in my lifetime, Tibet will get independence in a peaceful way. I believe the world will benefit so much from it, really. I’m not just saying that.” It is not hard to believe a man that has devoted a great chunk of his life to this cause. “End the article like this:” he told me, a smile coming across his face. “Let us hope that Tibet will get independence in our lifetime, in this reincarnation.” There is an honesty and an irony in his wording. To fully understand it, you really must see this breathtaking film.
Unmistaken Child is playing through Tuesday, June 16th at Film Forum in New York. It will open wider in different cities in the cming weeks. For more information, visit the film’s official website.