With the documentary film Unmistaken Child being released on DVD on April 11, we present our Q&A with its maker, Nati Baratz.
Geshe Lama Konchog died in 2001 at the age of 84. He was a revered Tibetan master, with a dedicated disciple, Tenzin Zopa (in his service since the age of seven). After Lama Konchog’s death, the high lamas at Dharamsala put Tenzin in charge of finding Konchog’s reincarnation. Nati Baratz, an Israeli director, filmed Unmistaken Child, an account of this extraordinary journey. After four years of searching, Tenzin found the child in a small village in Tsum Valley, the area where Tenzin himself was raised. The movie traces the events before, during, and after the journey, including rarely seen reincarnate tests, and a pivotal meeting with the Dalai Lama. I had the pleasure of interviewing Baratz the day before the film’s 2009 premiere in New York.
Nati, what gave you the idea to follow Tenzin Zopa on his journey?
I originally wanted to do a film to share my love of the Tibetans with others. So I actually started another film. I was going to make a film about Orthodox Jews who are looking for hidden Tibetan Jewish tribes. In the course of this film-making I came to Nepal to Kopan monastery and did a one month meditation course, and at the end of the course Tenzin came and gave a talk about his life with Geshe Lama Konchog, his master who had recently died. Tenzin touched me with his humor, good heart, and devotion, and at the end he asked us all to pray for the swift return of his master. When I found he was going to go look for the reincarnation, I realized this was a movie I had to make. That night I gave off my other projects. It took me three or four months to get approval from the Tibetan spiritual leadership to do this project.
You describe yourself as an informal Buddhist. Do you think your view of Buddhism changed over the course of making the film?
My view regarding the psychology and philosophy of Buddhism has not changed, but I found during the course of the filmmaking that there is a much more religious ritual aspect of Tibetan Buddhism which I didn’t know about before; being five and a half years with Tenzin Zopa really made me believe more about Buddhism and its power. Tenzin is a light-spreading person. He works so hard and always thinks of others.
Did Tenzin change over the course of the journey? In the film he goes through a lot of emotionally strenuous situations.
He changes a lot. He was a heart disciple, a servant and a student of Geshe Lama Konchog. He almost never left his side for twenty-one years, so he was a shy, obedient little boy, and suddenly he gets this enormous responsibility. As he says in the film, he always just said yes, and just followed; he didn’t have to plan. So in the beginning he was reluctant to take the responsibility for finding the reincarnation. Leadership had to really push him. So he said, “I’ll go and do what they want, but they have to make the final decision. I’m not a Buddha.” But when he finds the child, then he changes, learns to trust himself, because he knows he has found the right child and he wants to convince the leadership of this. He becomes a leader by himself.
This project took a very long time. Were you there constantly?
I was on and off. In the beginning I was there maybe seven months, and then for time to time I went for one month or two months. We were a long time on the road together, in tents together, in his monastery together. At the peak of the shooting I even moved with my wife and daughter to India to be closer to his monastery for a year. It was a life-changing experience. To be with Tenzin was always a teaching.
Were there any events during the filming that you found difficult to deal with?
Sometimes I saw things I felt were too private, and it was hard. Like when the high lamas did the big test to see if the child recognized objects from the past. It was very hard to go into this secret and private process, with all the high lamas in the room. Also, in many places in the film there was emotional difficulty. For example the parents were leaving the child, and he’s crying, “Now I have no friends,” and it’s very difficult for the parents. In this scene I felt maybe I should not be there. I thought to myself, okay, but be here, and then you will see whether it is for the benefit of the film.
The most important thing that I learned is to accept reality as it is. At one part I waited for an interview with a high Lama for two weeks in the monastery. And the Lama came to me and said, “Let’s do it next month.” If I hadn’t been with Tenzin for two years I would have been very upset, I mean, I came all the way from Israel with all my equipment, and you say, not this time? But instead, I just laughed, and I said, okay, everything’s for the best. I wasn’t even angry, but instead I accepted all the things happening in a positive way. Of course it also worked out for me, for the next time I came to the monastery he took me hand in hand, and walked with me along the monastery roads; he really trusted me.
Most of the filming took place in Nepal and India. Politically, what was it like to film in Tsum Valley, where the child was found?
Part of Tsum valley is in Nepal, and part is in Tibet, but the borders are not very strong there. The Chinese don’t really care about that region. If it had been further in Tibet, I would have not been able to make this film, even though the film is not political. Even because I said “Tibet” instead of “China,” this made the film unacceptable from the Chinese point of view. In Japan, officials got a letter from the Chinese embassy saying they should not show the film because the Dalai Lama is in it. The film doesn’t talk at all about politics, but even so, for the Chinese it is very political.
Do you think it will be shown in Japan?
I hope so, but people are afraid to take it, as they are afraid of the Chinese. The Chinese are not interested in people making any film about Tibet. I’ve always felt a deep moral responsibly to help the Tibetans, ever since I went backpacking there in the 90’s. I felt the best way to help would be to make a film that would not scream and shout and talk against anything, but just show the beauty of the Tibetans. So this was my way of helping the Tibetans. I just came from the Krakow festival, and this one Chinese official was furious at me. He said, how can you use Tenzin? He’s not an ordinary Tibetan; he speaks English. How can you represent him as the average Tibetan? I said, but that is exactly the point. He’s not an average monk, but he’s a very spiritual monk. He’s an exemplum of the qualities of the Tibetan tradition and people. But the official was angry, because Tenzin is a very appealing person, and they felt that was a danger.
What is the present relationship between Tenzin Zopa and Tenzin Phuntsok (the young reincarnate)?
Tenzin Phuntsok lives in a house that was built for him in Kopan monastery. Tenzin Zopa is responsible for his education, and has found many good teachers for him. Tenzin Zopa by the way is a Geshe, equivalent to a PhD in Buddhist philosophy. And he’s one of the youngest Geshes, as he skipped eight years. So after he got his degree they sent him to teach all over the world. He didn’t want to go too far from the child, so he agreed to be in Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan teaching there. But whenever possible he goes back to Kopan to be with the boy.
Do you think the film would be a positive introduction to Buddhism and the Tibetan culture?
I hope. My main reason for doing this film is that I wanted to give people a very personal and intimate look at Tibetan Buddhism, through being exposed to Tenzin. After that, the whole reincarnation search, it’s a great story, but it’s more for me an interesting plot. The focus is on Tenzin.
How do you think the movie will do in the States?
I think it will do alright, but the question is, will it go beyond that? This is the challenge of the distributor. I have a good feeling. Many good people were involved with this movie. But this movie is much bigger than us. I hope that people will see it and that as a result of watching this movie, people will have compassion for the Tibetans and their cause.