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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The Lama and the Disciple

August 15, 2009

Despite rookie-filmmaker mistakes, 'Unmistaken
Child' depicts an unquestionably fascinating love story
by James DiGiovanna
Tucson Weekly
August 11, 2009

"Unmistaken Child" is one of the strangest
romance films I've ever seen. It tells, in
documentary form, the story of Tenzin Zopa, a
disciple of Geshe Lama Konchog. Geshe was a
leading figure in Tibetan Buddhism, and when he
passed away at the age of 84, Tenzin, described
as his "heart disciple," was overwhelmed with grief.

Tenzin was clearly and completely in love with
Geshe (though, by Buddhist practice, their
relationship would have been nonsexual), and it's
odd and moving to hear him recount their relationship.

He starts by noting, somewhat eerily, that he's
never had to make decisions for himself: He would
simply do whatever Geshe told him to, from the
time he woke up to the moment he went to sleep.
Now, without his master, he's presented with the
task of finding the reincarnated soul of the great lama.

He then travels across Nepal, recounting the days
when he was in the presence of his beloved
teacher. He talks of sitting in his master's lap
and reciting prayers, of adorning Geshe with
flowers while he prayed, and of his parents'
attempts to sway him away from his devotion by
promising him a wife. "I'm totally not interested
in that," he told them, and, at the age of 7, he
rejected the world of heterosexual unions and
material acquisitions and went to live a life of
poverty in the all-male world of the Buddhist monasteries.

Which is, by American standards, strange, and
therefore interesting. The film's subject is what
makes it work; Tenzin is really compelling. He's
so human, and his love for Geshe and his grief
come across as far more real than anything in a
fictional romance or even the strangely staged
emotions one sees on reality TV. When Tenzin
cries at the sight of his master's old sanctuary, the effect is devastating.

Unfortunately, I can't say that this is a great
film. While Tenzin Zopa is the perfect subject
for a documentary, first-time filmmaker Nati
Baratz makes some rookie mistakes. The worst is
the intrusion of manipulative cello and violin
music. Baratz even plays this over Tibetan
chanting, which seems oddly counterproductive.
The emotions in this film should, and can, speak
for themselves, and if music was required, it
would have been more fitting to go with something
local to the subject matter. The mountains of
Nepal provide an easy target for Baratz's camera,
so the film at least looks great, and the task of
following Tenzin Zopa on what turns out to be a
five-year journey is impressive, but the film is
mostly a chronological portrayal of the quest, with little critical distance.

Things become most interesting when Tenzin
"finds" the reincarnated Geshe in the form of a
young boy. (His precise age isn't given, but he
looks to be no older than 3.) Anyone with a
background in experimental design will see the
flaws in the tests used to "prove" that the boy
is Geshe, but what makes this compelling is the
strange situation the child is put in. He's taken
from his parents and told he's a great master; he
meets the Dalai Lama; hundreds of people line up
to be blessed by him; he gets some shiny toys.

It's bizarre to see someone so young dressed in
celebratory robes and treated as an object of
adoration. Even odder is seeing him act like the
small child he is. I've never before seen a
religious leader crying out for his mommy and
daddy, or demanding to be taken to his
grandmother's house, or yelling, "Don't cut my
hair! Don't cut my hair!" In short, he is easily
the cutest enlightened master in the world.

At least at this point, the film acquires, with
little effort on the part of the director, some
critical stance toward its subject. When Tenzin
Zopa makes his final request to the boy's parents
for possession of their son, the affective
quality overcomes the accepting stance toward the
Buddhist practice. At first, the mother and
father are laughing, but then the young lama's
mother looks as though she's been shot through
the heart at the thought of giving up her child.

Unlike Tenzin Zopa, the young reincarnate doesn't
get to make a choice to become a monk. Taken up
by forces he clearly cannot understand, he
oscillates between laughing and enjoying his new
status and the terror of being taken from
everything he's known. Here, at least, questions
are raised about the practices, and, smartly, no simple answers are given.

That's because Baratz does his best to let his
subject speak through the film without imposing
any narration or editorial content. While the
film could have been better-constructed, and
would have benefited from some editing, it's
still an interesting document of a form of life
so distinct from the ideologically capitalist and
unquestioningly heterosexual norm we usually see in American cinema.

"Unmistaken Child"
Not Rated
Featuring Tenzin Zopa
Directed by Nati Baratz
Producer: Ilil Alexander, Nati Baratz and Arik Bernstein
Oscilloscope, 102 minutes
Opens Friday, July 24, at the Loft Cinema (795-7777).
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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