Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review: Unmistaken Child

Unmistaken Child
Directed by Nati Baratz
Tenzin Zopa, Tenzin Nyudrup

Grade: B

Written for Subtitled Online:

The tacit interaction in “Unmistaken Child” paves the way for ultimate success – what isn’t spoken isn’t real. The difficulties associated with faith may appear to vary from religion to religion, but the essence remains the same: sacrifice and duty rule over logic and impulse. In many cultures, the loss of a monarch or leader encompasses a period of mourning, a celebration of their life, and the eventual anointing of a successor, and for the inhabitants of Buddhist-centric Nepal, the story is no different. In chronicling the predicament of one religion in particular, Director Nati Baratz offers insight into universal cultural crises, and how one seeks to resolve them.

Tenzin Zopa, the leading figure in “Unmistaken Child,” feels the burden of duty, given the task of finding the next Lama (a Buddhist Spiritual Master) to carry on religious teachings, after the hugely-respected Geshe Lama Konchog dies of old age. His death has instigated the search for a newborn successor, believed to be a child born at around the same time as the monk was cremated, and whose body has become the vessel for Konchog’s spirit. Thus begins the search for this ‘chosen’ child, and a documentation of Zopa’s journey through nearby villages in the hope of recognising a unique quality in one of the infants that live there.

As a documentary, “Unmistaken Child” has been made to record an exceptional circumstance rather than an everyday occurrence. Sure, important people die in Nepal every day, but few are as prominent as to warrant a comb of the countryside for their spiritual descendant. Zopa understands this all too well, questioning periphery townsfolk on whether there are any children aged 12-18 months worthy of note. The project encompasses four years worth of work, through to the discovery of a child (Tenzin Nyudrup), the measures used to determine whether the child is the ‘unmistaken’ reincarnation, and eventually what this means for Zopa, Nyudrup, and Buddhism itself.

Once Zopa believes that he has found what he has been looking for, “Unmistaken Child” reverts to become more about the implications of faith. It shows how people become so immersed in belief that they’ll gladly be part of a system that serves the metaphysical aims of those which they don’t really know. At one point Zopa approaches his Aunt as if she were a stranger, only to become embarrassed when she makes him feel foolish for not recognising her. Such is his absorption in this mission he can concentrate on little else, and at one point breaks down amidst a confluence of grief, tension, and uncertainty at whether he can restore the memory of his former master.

In the way that Lixin Fan (in last year’s “Last Train Home”) personalised greater issues through the accepted struggle of one family, Baratz gives “Unmistaken Child” an organic, close-shot style that permeates perceptions of the culture. By placing us within the perspective of someone admittedly unimportant (Zopa calls his quest “bigger than his life”) Baratz reveals the effort to maintain tradition as far from an inevitability, or a question of the cream naturally rising to the top. It’s an altogether far-flung portrait from the fictional glamourisations of movies focused on legend and mystery, revealing the process as really quite clinical. In preparing Nyudrup for the judgement of the Dalai Lama and aides, the acts of shaving the boy’s head, and making him take part in a “name the object” task, feel like relatively superficial attempts to ingratiate him to the higher bodies of the Buddhist religion.

“Unmistaken Child” incites ethical debates while admirably remaining matter-of-fact and neutral at its core; it carries a respect for its subject matter but never an advocacy of it. The parents of chosen child Tenzin Nyudrup, for instance, are seemingly relaxed and compliant towards their son’s ascent into the upper echelons of philosophical royalty – or at least resigned to the fact that he may not become the man that they thought he might. And still, Baratz doesn’t shy away from a late scene in which they are forced to confront the realities of Tenzin’s future -- which is so wordlessly devastating without ever appearing to deliberately provoke upset or anger. He asserts the ‘unmistakeable’ goals of the exercise as an eye-opening journey of a burgeoning relationship between child and mentor, and stresses that this marks only the very beginning of this community’s ongoing transition.

In uncovering the emotional sensibilities behind the tradition, Baratz makes better use of the developing relationship between the two Tenzins while the validity of Nyudrup is still an issue. The methodical nature of the process makes the final third of the film anti-climactic, as they address the formalities of his ascent into a religious representative. You get the sense that “Unmistaken Child” veers forward in time considerably from the midsection of the narrative to its culmination, to the point where the boy is much more conscious of his situation later on. It’s most likely a constraint of the documentary’s time-frame, but nonetheless detracts from the earlier organic progression of Zopa’s and Nyudrup’s grapple with nature.

Either way, “Unmistaken Child” works on so many levels; as a product of unique storytelling and an underseen topic, as a parallel soul-search between mentor and mentee, and as a realisation of the power of Buddhist doctrine over its many devotees. With many documentaries these days opting for ambiguity, Baratz’s takes the time to show that tradition requires serious dedication and effort to hold onto, and that – on certain occasions – things can actually be set in stone.

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