Olden Boy

A monk’s journey to find the reincarnation of his beloved teacherAndrew Merz

Unmistaken Child
Written and directed by Nati Baratz
Opened June 2009; see oscilloscope.net for theaters
DVD, Oscilloscope Laboratories
102 minutes; $29.99; available October 2009

Unmistaken Child is director-writer Nati Baratz’s first feature-length documentary, a labor of love that took more than five years to complete [see interview, page 106]. In Zopa, he has found a documentarian’s dream protagonist. Zopa is expressive and vulnerable, by turns joyous and bereft, poetic and humble. That he is engaged in a mystical dharmic quest across majestic Himalayan vistas that culminates in the discovery of an adorably stern and pudgy little boy from a farm straight out of another century makes this an almost irresistible film, whatever your skepticism about reincarnation and the tulku system. Baratz leaves much of the process to the viewer to decipher, employing only a few titles and the occasional reflection from Tenzin Zopa to set the stage and chart his progress. The film has little or no dialogue, and it is not missed: Zopa’s countenance and the landscapes he travels communicate more than enough.

The emotional charge of the film only increases once Zopa achieves his goal and finds the boy. The ritual testing of a tulku candidate will be familiar to viewers who have seen Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, which depicts the 14th Dalai Lama as a boy undergoing the same evaluations. But without the buffer of time, dramatization, and knowledge of the outcome—i.e., the accomplishments of the Dalai Lama—many viewers are likely to find the toddler’s separation from his family unsettling—at best bittersweet, at worst heartbreaking. “Now I have no friends,” the boy wails as his parents leave him at Kopan. They are clearly upset about surrendering their child, but their devotion to Geshe Lama Konchog is undeniable, and there is never much doubt that they will ultimately consent. “If he works for the benefit of sentient beings, then I can give my child up,” the father finally says. “Who could give up their child for nothing?”

Even as we look for something divine in the child, he is still very much a little boy. As he is whisked off to the monastery to live among hundreds of monks without exposure to the outside world, it is difficult not to wonder if this process isn’t ultimately exploitative. At his enthronement, where thousands file by to leave donations and receive his blessing, the child dutifully touches foreheads and doles out katas, but his face only springs to life when one of the worshippers gives him a shiny toy helicopter. Afterward, we see him in his room, surrounded by toys like a child at Christmas, but we can’t help asking if he will still be allowed such simple indulgences as a young master. As artful as Baratz’s spare approach is, by giving his audience so little context for understanding how tulkus are trained, he limits our capacity to make ethical room for what we are witnessing.

The same week Unmistaken Child was released, a British newspaper ran a sensational piece on the 24-year-old Spanish film student identified in infancy as the reincarnation of a popular 20th-century Gelugpa teacher, Lama Yeshe. The article implied that the young man, Osel Hita Torres, had turned his back on his tulku designation, and quoted him as saying, “They took me away from my family and stuck me in a medieval situation in which I suffered a great deal.” Though Torres later denied that he had severed connections with his sangha, the fact that the article ran at all suggests how quick we are to debunk what falls outside Western cultural norms. But is the tulku system indeed an inhumane tradition, ill suited to 21st-century life, or is it justifiable, given the good we know tulkus can do in the world?

The Dalai Lama, exhibit A in any case to be made for the tulku system, appears briefly in Unmistaken Child, ordaining the boy, giving him his new name—Tenzin Phuntsok Rinpoche— and directing him to become a “perfect holder of the teachings.” As we see the two together, we are left to wonder: Can Tibetan Buddhism continue to develop teachers of the caliber of Geshe Lama Konchog and the Dalai Lama without the tulku system? Can the devotion that fuels and transforms people like Tenzin Zopa survive without them? While Unmistaken Child makes no judgments about the tulku system, it is an inspiring and unequivocal argument for the enduring power of such devotion.

Read the interview with the filmmaker, "Making a Mahayana Movie."

Contributing editor Andrew Merz is pursuing a master of divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School.

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rudi's picture

I can't help thinking that you were more than a little troubled by what you saw in this film... why else end your review with questions about the ethics of the tradition, a comment about the absence of sufficient room for coming to terms with these questions and an allusion to the Dalai Lamas' appearance as "exhibit A?"... from the interview that follows, I get the impression that Baratz's intentions were clearly dispassionate, whereas your review reveals that your experience of it was not... I have not yet seen the film myself, but I suspect you have done it a disservice by introducing questions that go well beyond its intent... and reduce it to a basis for the sort of for-or-against opinionizing that is all too prevalent in today's media driven world.

crazy rudy