Unmistaken Child Review
Two years after its US DVD release through Oscilloscope Laboratories, and a handful of screenings as part of BBC4’s Storyville strand (under the title of The Baby and the Buddha), Nati Baratz’s Unmistaken Child finally arrives onto disc in the UK. This 2008 documentary concerns itself with the search undertaken by Buddhist monk Tenzin Zopa to find the reincarnation of his master Lama Konchog who died in 2001. The process - first of locating the potential child and then confirming that he is indeed the ‘unmistaken’ one - took four years and is captured by Baratz at every stage of the journey. Initially the film plays out almost as a road movie as Zopa treks between remote Tibetan villages, yet it is also a fascinating glimpse at the 700-year old Buddhist traditions; we’ve seen them featured as part narrative cinema in Martin Scorsese’s Kundun and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, but rarely - if at all - in strict documentary form.
This aspect of the unfamiliar is what drives Unmistaken Child and was no doubt the inspiration behind the film’s conception in much the same way as it was for other Buddhist-centred documentaries such as Graham Coleman’s 1978 epic Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy, Werner Herzog’s Wheel of Time or The Lost World of Tibet by the BBC. However, I would argue that the unfamiliar is stronger in Baratz’s film than it is in these other works owing to the added humanist elements. Whilst his camera may observe from a respectful distance (at times having to zoom in order to capture a particular moment or exchange) he is nonetheless able to get close to his subjects and thus allow Unmistaken Child an emotional core. Indeed, his film may be set in some stunning landscapes, yet the choice to use digital video as opposed to film stock suggests that the visual qualities were not utmost in his mind. Rather he is more concerned with the portrait; that of Tenzin Zopa and that of the ‘unmistaken child’ of the title.
It helps, no doubt, that Zopa is such an open presence in front of the camera. Unafraid to share his emotions, it is clear to see the effect that losing his master has had on him, both through his reluctance to take on the task of finding his reincarnation and the abundance of tears which come at certain points. Furthermore, he’s also an incredibly warm presence, ably engaging with the children and families who come in his path and, perhaps, not that far removed from being a child himself. As a guide through Unmistaken Child he proves invaluable, fully allowing for a connection between the audience and that which is caught on camera; a point of entry, if you will, that wasn’t always present in those other documentaries mentioned above. Those films relied on the outsider perspective or attempted to remain as objective as possible. Of course, with that came their own respective qualities (and I would recommend each to those wishing to find out more about Tibetan history or Buddhist culture), but Unmistaken Child is slightly different as a result. It just as ably casts light on these long-held traditions but is also undoubtedly more immediate in its effects. The concluding scenes, in which the parents effectively give up their child to the monastery and cause unsurprising distress on his part - “Don’t let them go. Now I have no friends. I have no friends” - are both heartbreaking and understandable within the bigger picture. Whilst we will no doubt remember the insight afforded by Unmistaken Child, it is arguably moments such as these which will linger the longest.
Matchbox Films are releasing Unmistaken Child onto a single-layered disc encoded for Region 2. The film retains its 1.66:1 original aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced, and stereo soundtrack. Given that it was shot on digital video it is hard to ascertain just how ‘correct’ the transfer is. Certainly, there are flaws but these could easily be inherent in the original materials. Unfortunately I do not the Oscilloscope disc with which to compare. Nonetheless the image remains clean and as clear as could expected, presumably, from the low grade-ish digital source and remains watchable throughout. The soundtrack fares well also, especially the strong score (which at times is akin to Inception’s), whilst the dialogue remains clear. Note, however, that all of the dialogue - whether in English or Tibetan, Hindi or Nepali - is subtitled throughout (the English being a little unnecessary perhaps given Zopa’s clear diction) and these subtitles are burnt into the image as opposed to being optional. Extras are limited to a trailer meaning that the eight deleted scenes present on the Oscilloscope disc have not made the transition to Region 2.