A documentary that plays out more like a mystery, rather than one that informs.
How’s that for a change? I rarely come across this particular narrative format for documentaries, and yet here we are. I do, however, doubt that it is a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmaker. A big part of the is to do with the subject matter at hand itself.
‘Unmistaken Child’ is a slightly odd title, but one that is rather appropriate. Lama Konchog, a well-regarded master from Tibet passed away in 2001. Despite his death due to old age, Buddhism beliefs dictates that he is reincarnated somewhere, somehow. Searching for the one child who the master is believed to have been reincarnated as is the job of Tenzin Zopa. With explicit instructions from the Dalai Lama himself, Tenzin sets out on the unenviable task of searching for his master.
He does this by referring back to his old master. Lama Konchog left behind earthly possessions which could be useful in trying to track down his reincarnation. There was one moment in the film when Tenzin explicitly refers to a map, thinking aloud as to where his search might be most fruitful. The music, along with the tone and the editing, lends an air of mystery and importance to the film. It
is then that I began to understand the magnitude of the search, and realise of the significance of the title. ‘Unmistaken Child’ has a feeling of importance, because it is important that the child selected, the child they believe to be the one, is not mistaken. Not only would that be embarrassing, but it would leave a significant vacuum in the leadership.
Thus, it appears as though no expense has been spared. Tenzin spends a considerable amount of time hiking on foot, on horses, but it is one scene where he arrives in a particular village by helicopter that was quite impressive. I am not talking about his particular arrival, but the reactions of the villagers to his arrival. Many of them look on in awe, and take time out to shake his hand and wish him luck on his search. The village may have been rather inaccessible by foot, but word travels rather fast.
The film may have lasted for little more than an hour, but in truth, this was a search that took four years to complete. Through the early part of the film, we go through Tenzin’s own trials and tribulations, wondering whether he had read the signs and clues carefully. He wondered about the places that his master must have traveled to in the past, and reveals how close and intimate their relationship had been. It was a touching few moments, the protagonist relating a story with someone who doesn’t appear on camera at all.
Unless, of course, we’re counting the child that he eventually found. Of course, that’s not such a big giveaway, given the title and some of the posters and screenshots that can be found online. Nevertheless, the title once again comes into play: how sure are we that the child found by Tenzin is the reincarnated master? He is enchanted by the same items that belonged to Lama Konchog, and seems to tick all the right boxes. Nevertheless…there is something mystical at work here. Herein lies arguably the film’s greatest strength: the ability to put on the screen the result of something that many Buddhists cannot quite grasp, the mysticism and aura surrounding reincarnation. I see it, I comprehend it, but a part of my mind can’t quite grasp it. I do, however, feel a sense that I am witnessing something special. Put it another way…how on earth did they manage to decide that that small kid is a reincarnated Buddhist master? I saw it with my eyes, but a part of me still didn’t quite believe it.
That, however, is nothing compared to the disbelief that the little child himself must have felt. How would you feel if you are taken away from your parents…nay, if you are allowed to be taken away from your parents by themselves? What more, you can’t quite play the card of ‘not being in control’ here, because we’re not just talking about control, we’re talking about karma. We see not just the child being almost forcibly anointed as a special one, but also its impact on his psyche; the scene where cried, longing to be with his family, who had raised him since birth, stayed with me long after the film finished. I suppose now that years have passed after the fact, he would have gotten used to it, but I wonder whether there are lingering moments of quiet regret or discontent. I wish we had been allowed more time to ponder this during the film, but I suppose that is not quite the director intended, because that would lead back to the question of whether he really is the unmistaken child, the chosen one, or whether he just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That’s a charge that can’t quite be leveled the film’s director Nati Baratz. Well, it can, but it wouldn’t stick, for Baratz seems to be the most fortunate out of the characters her, his camera gazing patiently upon the subjects at hand. Four years in the making; imagine how much footage he had shot during the time.
Speaking of characters, Tibet itself plays a role here. I’ve always been a fan of the countryside, and here, sprawling shots of mountain ranges, capped with whiteness at their peaks, does not fail to astound me. It speaks even more of the grand task that Tenzin faced in trying to track down his master; at times, the shot composition tells a story that no words could do as effectively, for the enormity of the task at hand must have been scary at times. The change of tone from mysterious to distant (we never really get the child’s opinions) was understandable, but this lack of consistency should not distract from the hard work and ambition of Nati Baratz.
Helped along by the subject matter, such grandness within a small film is no mean feat.
Fikri enjoys the architechture of Buddhist temple; he wants to film a shootout in one in the future.