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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Unmistaken Child

July 17, 2009

In Nepal, a child inherits the role of a lifetime

By Ty Burr, Globe Staff | July 17, 2009

To accept what happens in “Unmistaken Child,’’ you don’t have to believe
in reincarnation. You do, however, have to believe that the people in
this movie believe in it - that the idea of a soul transmigrating from a
dying Buddhist lama to a newborn boy is part of the conceptual stew in
which they and their society swim every day.

This documentary by the Israeli filmmaker Nati Baratz observes the
anointing of a spiritual heir without the usual devices designed to make
Western audiences comfortable. There’s no voice-over narration, a
minimum of scene-setting - no ethnographic framing, in other words. Nor
is there a political subtext: China and its treatment of Tibet are never

We simply are present from 2001, when the 84-year-old Geshe Lama Konchog
died, to 2005, when the toddler recognized as his reincarnation was
presented to the Buddhist community of Nepal and beyond. You could argue
that the film would be stronger if it explained more fully and asked
more questions, yet “Unmistaken Child’’ stands as a window on a
beautiful and mysterious world. The questions it leaves hanging are for
us to untangle.

The film’s central character, actually, is Tenzin Zopa, the
tenderhearted young acolyte whose life, since the age of 7, has been
devoted to serving Geshe Lama. Upon his master’s death, the grieving
Zopa is instructed by the Dalai Lama himself to seek out the
reincarnated boy, a task he feels unsuited for. How can a mere follower,
he asks, spot the divine? On one level, “Unmistaken Child’’ is a moving
coming-of-age story in which a shy student matures into a teacher.

Astrological charts are consulted, lamas conferred with, and all signs
point to the remote Tsum Valley on the border of Tibet. The midsection
of “Unmistaken Child’’ dispatches Zopa to the region’s villages, seeking
a 1 1/2-year-old boy who will recognize Geshe Lama’s prayer beads.
Zopa’s the prince and the beads are the glass slipper; the parents all
understand what’s at stake. (One woman pushes her baby forward like one
of the stage mothers in “Brüno.’’) Eventually, one boy responds - a
lively, fat-cheeked little terror - and before a group of monks he
successfully chooses Geshe Lama’s belongings from a group of objects.

Is he coached? Are there body signals we’re missing? The film will
frustrate literal-minded viewers who want answers rather than
dispassionate sympathy - who want the matter proved. Instead,
“Unmistaken Child’’ examines the deeply affectionate relationship that
arises between the boy - eventually renamed Tenzin Phuntsok - and the
young man he calls “Big Uncle.’’ What’s most remarkable is how the child
seems to understand and accept the significance of his new role,
serenely greeting crowds of the devout and at one point looking at a
photo of the deceased lama and saying, “That one is me.’’

At the same time, he’s still a kid, and in an earlier scene the movie
weighs the cost of becoming divine, when his parents leave him with Zopa
and he dissolves into tears. “Unmistaken Child’’ hints that conferring
nobility can create nobility - this is how the current Dalai Lama was
selected, after all - and also that childhood is a very hard price to pay.

Ty Burr can be reached at  For more on movies, go to
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