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My Reincarnation: The Ultimate Father-Son Story

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It’s fitting that there’s so much more than what meets the eye when watching My Reincarnation. The documentary, which kicks off POV’s 25th anniversary season this week, is primarily about Tibetan Buddhism, and how a young man, Yeshi, confronts the designation that he is the reincarnation of his uncle, a Buddhist master.

Certainly, the film is about this, and director Jennifer Fox incorporates plenty of dialogue in which Westerners wrestle with the precepts of Buddhism as well as several soul-stirring images of the elements and nature that help us ruminate on the nature of our existence.

But, to me, My Reincarnation is primarily a film about a father and a son. In fact, just following Father’s Day, it brings to mind that this is one of the best documentaries ever made about the father-son relationship.

We meet Yeshi as an 18-year-old who appears totally disconnected from his father, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. Fox made the film over a 20-year period, so we see a progression of their interactions, not unlike in a Michael Apted Up film.

And yet, for the entirety of My Reincarnation, even when father and son appear to be becoming closer in spirit, they don’t seem to have a strong father-son bond, at least, not in the way we in the West would consider it. There isn’t a hint of intimacy between the two. (Yeshi repeatedly comments on how his father doesn’t respond to his deepest questions.)

Their relationship is a conundrum. It puts one more in the mind of The Great Santini than Finding Nemo

And although My Reincarnation is a compelling story of Yeshi’s faith and fate, when I think of the title, I can’t help think that it is less about him than it is about his father, Namkhai Norbu. After all, what comes closest to one’s reincarnation in the secular world, is, of course, one’s own children. I think of Namkhai Norbu looking at his son, whether he knows it or not, and seeing him as his reincarnation, and so, like all fathers, he sees some of himself in him, and he doesn’t want him to make the same mistakes he’s made.

When you consider how opaque Namkhai Norbu remains throughout the film, this interpretation of the title becomes all the more poignant. Namkhai Norbu seems to be a prisoner of his elevated status, as Fox’s film shows in many ways. But nowhere is he more of a prisoner than in his inability to communicate clearly with his son. I imagine more learned people than I would say that that is the Buddhist way — after all, look at Yeshi by the end, he seems to have found a path far better than if his father had led him there — but I am not sure that was a result of his good teaching as it was the result of his flaws as a father.

Post Script:

Fox has said that Namkhai Norbu wouldn’t have allowed anyone other than she to make this film, and so it is a rare close look at a revered Tibetan Buddhist. It reminds me that I once spoke with Buddhist teacher Robert Thurman about why there hadn’t been a proper documentary made about the Dalai Lama. I don’t know about you, but the Dalai Lama strikes me as probably the most compelling individual on the planet right now. There’s no pope, priest, painter, politician, rabbi, movie star, dot-com impresario or spiritual leader I’d rather see a great, intimate documentary about more than the Dalai Lama.

“People are always bowing to him all the time,” Thurman said, about the films that have represented him so far, which I assume includes his appearance in My Reincarnation. “Or they show him breaking a watch and laughing. They don’t show the other side of him.”

You’d think that Thurman, whose daughter is actor Uma Thurman after all, could be the guy to help make that film happen. I suggested it to him.

“I don’t have the film crew or the budget,” he said with a laugh.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki