Tech-Savvy Monks, Tibet, and The Ultimate Love Story

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Nati Baratz went to Tibet to find a movie; five and a half years later, after obtaining permission from a Lama, living outdoors, climbing in the Himalayas, getting altitude sickness, and rigging a solar charger onto a horse’s saddle to power the equipment, he got one. His documentary, Unmistaken Child , follows Tenzin Zopa on the four-year long search for the reincarnation of his master, Lama Konchog. The film opens tonight in New York at the Film Forum; we met with Baratz earlier this week to discuss the challenges of translating an epic, centuries-old ritual onto the big screen.

Flavorpill: This wasn’t exactly a typical film schedule. Why put yourself through that?

Nati Baratz: I didn’t know it would be quite so long. I didn’t think it would take five and a half years. In 2002, I decided to go to Asia and refused to come back without my next film. I started to make another film about Orthodox Jews looking for a hidden Jewish Tibetan tribe, and then by chance I came across Tenzin. I said, “Oh my god, this amazing character is looking for the reincarnation of his master; this is a movie I have to make!” When we first began, Tenzin was really worried about me. He said, “But what if we never find the reincarnation or it takes 20 years?” I think that good documentaries require living with people a long time.

FP: So what are you hoping audiences will take away from this?

NB: I would like people to take just a different way of thinking. If you expose people to a different way of thinking and a different culture, that can make them think differently. Just following Tenzin showed a lot of Tibetan qualities. They’re very humble, very kind, peaceful people. Non-violent people. If the viewer follows and identifies with him, these qualities might change you.

FP: He does seem different from what many Americans might think a Buddhist monk might be. He’s seems very open and emotional.

NB: Yeah, and it’s a very breaking concept. They don’t say no to technology. You can see in the movie the TV and helicopter; his sneakers and bag. I didn’t show his iMac, and I think he has an iPhone now that he got from a disciple. They don’t say no to the good life. The monks don’t have sex, but they say there’s nothing wrong with sex. It’s just addictive. He eats good food even though he’s a monk.

FP: After he found the little boy, and he was accepted as the reincarnation, it was sad how the parents had to give him up. They may not see him again. Particularly for you as a parent, was that hard to watch?

NB: Yes, it’s also hard to watch the child now. But I’m just documenting it. I’m not a part of this tradition. It doesn’t matter how much faith you have — for the parents they believe that he is the reincarnation, the Dalai Lama said so — to give up your child would be so hard. But it’s also inspiring to see people willing to give up their most precious thing to help others. It’s inspiring how much they can think of others. Plus, the child will get the best education possible. The family will get a lot of honor and money. They will be able to visit him, and when he turns 18 he can decide to disrobe. Of course, this is Tenzin’s nightmare, but it does happen, especially with reincarnated masters. They have a lot of connection to Westerners and money, so it happens a lot.

Right now, he’s six, and he’s already speaking English and learning philosophy. He looks very lonely. He’s not allowed to play with other kids, only other reincarnated lamas, and he’s under a tough learning schedule. If you read the Dalai Lama’s biography, he describes a very lonely life. Of course, he’s a happy person now, but you know.

FP: You call Tenzin the hero of the story, so you consider him the real focus of the movie, not the little boy?

NB: My story was always about Tenzin. For me it was an ultimate love story. I mean, Tenzin Zopa lost his whole world with his master. His parents, his teacher. But unlike us, he has a chance to find him again. They get to start their life together all over again in reverse. It’s a special relationship.

FP: There was something very Buddhist about the act of watching the film.

NB: Yeah, I think the movie does require a certain amount of patience. It’s one of the goals: to allow the audience to really experience Buddhism. The story is constructed like a mythical story. I used the reincarnation story as a structure to make things interesting enough where you have the patience to lay back and observe the reality. But I do think there is a dramatic edge. And it’s really important to me to make people think for themselves. Some people don’t like it; they like narrative. It’s also very Buddhist to think for yourself. The Buddha says, “Don’t believe anything I say, you must question everything for yourself.”