Writer/director Nati Baratz’s doc “Unmistaken Child” is the story of the Buddhist concept of reincarnation. The film follows the 4-year-search for the reincarnation of Lama Konchog, a world-renowned Tibetan master who passed away in 2001 at age 84. The Dalai Lama charges the deceased monk’s devoted disciple, Tenzin Zopa (who had been in his service since the age of seven), to search for his master’s reincarnation, a child who may be anywhere in the world. Tenzin sets off on foot, mule and even helicopter, through breathtaking landscapes and remote traditional Tibetan villages. He listens to stories about children with special characteristics, performs rituals and rarely-seen tests designed to determine the likelihood of reincarnation, and eventually presents his chosen one to the Dalai Lama, who will make the final decision.
“Unmistaken Child” won Best Documentary prizes at the 2009 Full Frame and RiverRun festivals s well as a special jury prize at the Boston Independent Film Festival. The Oscilloscope Laboratories release opens Friday, June 3 at New York’s Film Forum followed by a national release in select cities throughout June and July.
iW: What brought on your interest in filmmaking?
NB: It’s my first feature length documentary, and since I graduated from film school at Tel Aviv University 14 years ago, I worked in the hi-tech industry as a freelance consultant and waited for the right time to engage full time in filmmaking and writing. During that period I completed 2 short documentaries, just to “keep in shape” and not get too rusty.
Music and movies were always the ultimate human experience for me, but since I was a total failure at playing any musical instrument, but enjoyed writing, I decided to go to film school to study scriptwriting – I wanted to focus on comedies and fantasies. But somehow in the course of my studies I fell in love with the world of documentaries and the unlimited possibilities it carries both in form and content. The creative freedom in documentaries attracts me, there is still so much to explore, and in a documentary film you have more opportunities to maximize your intensions, especially due to the relatively low budget required.
iW: So how was “Unmistaken Child” born?
NB: I was traveling in Asia with my wife and was looking for my next project. I wanted to find some content related to Tibet, to share and examine my attraction, and even obsession with the Tibetans, which began in 1993 while backpacking in Tibet. I always felt a sense of responsibility towards these beautiful, smart and kindhearted people and their great culture, which is in danger due to the Chinese oppression.
I started to work on a documentary about a group of orthodox Jews who are looking for a hidden Jewish-Tibetan tribe there. My research continued to Nepal, where I happened to hear a talk by a young monk named Tenzin Zopa, a heart disciple of a renowned Tibetan master who had recently died. At the end of the talk Tenzin requested us to pray for the swift return of the reincarnation of his master. Having known the Tibetan tradition of searching for reincarnated masters, and being seriously moved by this young monk’s humor, faith and especially huge heart – I was not able to sleep the whole night. In short, this film started as love at first sight, I feel that Tenzin is an amazing character and that his physical and emotional quest has mythical qualities.
iW: How did you set out in your approach to making it?
NB: I wanted the film to have a dramatic narrative structure, an engaging story that will speak for itself without a narrator, but at the same time not to lose the power of documentation and reality. That balance was the biggest challenge in all the post-production period. My intension was to focus on Tenzin Zopa’s story and evolution within the mythical/historical story outline, and to closely follow him and give a feeling of “a fly on the wall” – a feeling that will not allow the colorful and exotic nature of the material to obscure the personal journey of Tenzin.
To achieve this you must live many months with the people in each location, stay as inconspicuous as possible, and film a lot… (Also because I don’t speak the language). I tried to tell the story in such an engaging way, to have enough suspense that will allow people to patiently observe, experience and contemplate. I felt that just from being so close to Tenzin and his quest, people could gain and learn a lot! I thought that it was a rare opportunity to share and feel the qualities of the Tibetan Buddhism and people.
iW: How did the financing work?
NB: The financing of this film came after the shooting was almost done. In the first 2 years, I promised the Tibetan leadership not to show the material to anyone since it might harm the search, and later it was hard to find sponsorship for a relatively big documentary like this one, since it’s my first feature, and especially when it was not clear whether the reincarnation would be approved by the Dalai Lama.
So it was 4 years of racing, working in the hi-tech industry to sponsor the next shooting session. In the peak of the filming I even moved with my wife and my 2 year-old daughter to India to be close to the happenings and save money… At that stage two co-producers joined the film, Ilil Alexander and Arik Bernstein, and in a pitch at Hot Docs a few major TV partners joined us: ITVS International (for PBS “Independent Lens”), ARTE France, BBC Storyville, DR-YLE and Israeli Doco Channel 8. Later Fortissimo Films came as the sales agent, and now I am very happy that a dedicated company like Oscilloscope is distributing the film in North America. They even plan to donate 20% of the profits to Buddhist organizations and to the reincarnated child’s future! It’s a great joy to find a film distributor that has moral responsibility toward its films.
iW: What are your upcoming projects?
NB: Since this project took more than 5 years to complete, I have two pending documentaries, which I am eager to finish. At the same time, I will complete writing my first narrative feature. The current project in process begins in a big restaurant in New York, and in a very personal and dramatic way spreads across many parts of the world, showing world globalization and resources distribution. I hope to achieve the feeling of Altman’s “Shortcuts,” with very personal and strong documentary stories and characters linked. For this project, aside for the formal cut, I intend to involve my interest in interactive cinema, and create an interactive version that shows a different storyline according to viewers’ preferences.
iW: What advice can you offer to rookie filmmakers?
You are surrounded by experienced and professional partners – but always stick to your truth and instincts, remember that you are the one who is carrying the “DNA” of the project, and everyone expects you to actualize that magic that is hard to put into words.
iW: What was a personally proud moment of yours as a filmmaker?
The film’s world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, last August, was my biggest joy. After the screening I was moved by the reaction of the people, and felt that my 5-and-a-half-year quest was worth the effort, and that the film can be very meaningful to others.