This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
To the mind of a Western rationalist, “Unmistaken Child” raises questions so fundamental that they interfere with the film’s purpose. Here is a documentary about a very young child who is believed to be the reincarnation of a Buddhist lama and is taken from his parents to be brought up in a monastery. I know this is a practice of traditional forms of Buddhism, but still: Should it go this smoothly? Should the parents be so agreeable? The child so acquiescent? The monks so certain?
There is a tendency for Westerners to accept beliefs such as reincarnation more easily than they might accept some of the fundamentalist beliefs of their own Judeo-Christian tradition. This may be a form of exoticism, the willingness to ascribe to the Mysterious East possibilities we would be dubious about in our own culture.
The documentary, made by Nati Baratz, an Israeli who calls himself an “informal Buddhist,” accepts everything in the account at face value. It began, he says, during his visit to a monastery, when he met Tenzin Zopa, a 30-ish Nepalese monk who had recently lost his master of 21 years. This man, Geshe Lama Konchog, who had lived a life of solitary meditation in a cave for more than two decades, was respected and beloved, and the Dalai Lama placed Tenzin in charge of the search for his reincarnation.
This search involves observations of the direction of the smoke from Geshe Lama funeral pyre, and the reading of his ashes (a footprint pointing East is discerned, although not by me). An astrologer in Taiwan is consulted, and advises that there is a 95 percent chance the reincarnated boy’s father will have a name beginning with “A,” and that he will be found in a place beginning with “TS.”