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Next on POV: My Reincarnation

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POV kicks off its 25th season with My Reincarnation, a documentary that follows Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s rise as a Buddhist teacher in the West, while his son Yeshi, recognized as the reincarnation of a Buddhist master, breaks away to embrace the modern world.

My Reincarnation

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu teaches while his son, Yeshi, looks on as Rinpoche gives teachings to thousands of local Kalmyks. (Photo credit: Zohe Film Productions, Inc.)

Watch the documentary on PBS stations starting this Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 10 PM. Check your local listings.

Filmed over 20 years by acclaimed documentarian Jennifer Fox, My Reincarnation chronicles the epic story of exiled Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and his Western-born son, Yeshi. Can the father convince his son to keep the family’s spiritual legacy alive? With intimate access to both the family and H.H. The Dalai Lama, Fox distills a decades-long drama into a universal story about love, transformation and destiny.

View the trailer for the documentary My Reincarnation.
U.S. Broadcast Premiere: Thursday, June 21, 2012, on POV.

You can watch the film now, before it airs on PBS stations, on POV’s website and on PBS’s mobile apps for iPad or iPhone, then watch the film online, for a limited time, starting Friday, June 22, 2012.

Whether you watch the film on your phone, on our website or on television, visit POV’s My Reincarnation companion site for more interactive features — Learn more about Buddhist beliefs and practices, watch additional video, get an update on the father and son from the film, download classroom and event resources, and gain insight into the documentary production process with director Jennifer Fox.

And, as always, we’re sharing your reactions to the program. Join the conversation on the My Reincarnation companion site, on Facebook or Twitter.

Did you know? Many POV films are available free to stream online and on mobile devices. Visit POV’s Watch Video page or download the PBS mobile app for iPhone or iPad, and see which films are available today!

Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs.

POV Staff
POV Staff
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.
  • Sweetheart Deal

    I hear what you were hoping for, and maybe what you’re used to and comfortable seeing in documentaries, but as you said, it’s a style choice (that’s been used by some of the greatest verite directors.) Adding title cards with facts or interviewing experts would completely jolt audiences out of the tone of the piece, a mood portrait of a place and its residents. A film like Oxyana that doesn’t rely on that approach for storytelling is a much more difficult one to make, because it requires taking more time and intimacy with the subjects and developing relationships. Dunne is profiling what he saw in one town, which, as indicated by the title, didn’t hide its intentions. There’s no question that Oceana — as many small towns and big cities across the country – has a big problem, so this is how people living there see it. Audiences can decide for themselves or do further research if they want to learn more. I still think it educates and was extremely effective on a number of levels. Even if he wasn’t setting out to affect social change with it, it may do just that.

    Prescription drug addiction has risen to a shocking level throughout the US. (I’ll send verification if you need it!) Of course here are lots of films (or research papers, news articles, books) that will provide actual statistics if that’s what you’re looking for.

    • Tom Roston

      Well said. Thanks.

  • David Redmon

    Hi Tom, I hadn’t heard of this movie until I read your essay. I watched it last night online. The characters are filmed with empathy and thoughtfulness (though mot much time is spent with them – it’s a short term themed movie rather than longitudinal). Title cards and expert testimonies are unnecessary given the experts in the story are the users, parents, the dentist and the lawyer. It’s local knowledge starting inside with reliable and unreliable characters who make reliable and unreliable statements that move outward. The unreliable statements aren’t meant to measure factual truth, in my opinion. I see them as qualitative statements of an interior worldview. However, I do think the entire movie is structured by themes instead of an overall narrative of desire meets obstacle. It’s a simple way to organize a movie that has very little action and commitment to place, but contains a lot of words/talking through interviews. Actually, though, the words (so much speaking in the movie) didn’t bother me at all. The lyricism (gliding shots, drive by shots) told me more about the aesthetic choices of the filmmaker and his selective shots that mirrored the bodies and lives of the addicts than his attempt to create sensation. He didn’t have to create sensation, the people in the movie generated enough of it for me. I don’t see those languid shots as lyrical, rather I interpret them as spaces to reflect and breath. Sure, it’s a movie that seems like a “drive by” and can be critiqued as shallow (it’s certainly not immersive), but the depth garnered by moving there and spending a year or so with everyone (had the director done that) would have been an entirely different movie with likely the same outcome (albeit a different narrative structure). The story impressed and stuck with me, unlike the first three films mentioned in your essay (I haven’t seen the 4th one).

    • Tom Roston

      Thanks, David. It’s like @prewarcinema said on Twitter last night; maybe I just didn’t like the movie. There’s some truth to that, but there’s much of the film that I did like, and what I am trying to point out is that, for example, I think it would have been better if you knew where/why drug counseling was available to these people. By not going there, Dunne sells the audience and his film short, I think. And the reason I can call this a phenomenon, The New Doc Vague, is because it’s the sort of error/choice being repeated by other filmmakers. I think it’s something to consider.

      • David Redmon

        I don’t think at all that you’re reductionist (e.g., reducing the film to the terms of taste – like or dislike). You’re offering a written critique rather than criticism. I think your desire to see a way out of the mess presented in the film reflects more on your sense of hopelessness after watching the movie (which is legit). The 280 pound man (at the end of the film) didn’t wanna go to rehab even though his mother said she’d pay for it (she couldn’t afford counseling which suggests that it’s privatized) and also clean his underwear from all the mess he’d secrete through detox. Counseling, however, has likely been gutted by the state and maybe that’s the connection you wanted to see presented in the movie – the personal struggles meeting the source of gutted social welfare protections that help induce social problems (which is missing in the movie). How has the community been depleted, severed from protection and investment in its cultural, psychological, human, and economic resources? It’s an essay question that fits the themes of the movie, yet the lawyer in the story presents the community as a group in over its head. It’s too late; that ship is sinking.

        Your statement about the new doc vague is right on, however, and I hope you explore it in more detail in the future. Oxyana has substance, whereas others I’ve seen in the same category (e.g., Doc Vague) glorify the clever techniques of the cinematographer and call attention to the “artistic choices” of the filmmaker through slick narcissism displaced onto characters and disguised or packaged as an aesthetics of experience. The only experience in some of those Doc Vagaries is the smell it generates.

    • Fred Wiseman

      Sorry David I respect you very much but I really disagree with you on your assessment of the film. I think the filmmaker would have made a much better film if he did become immensed in the culture. He never got the approval of the town that he was filming, he never worked it seems with a local production crew to really “tell their story” according to the New Republic piece. I remember when he was raising money on kickstarter he stated something to the affect that the majority of the town was on drugs. Is that true? Imagine if you live in Oceana, West Virginia and a rich kid from new york city just said your whole town is on drugs. Can you make a statement like that and attempt to present “the people’s voice” – that you are a “vessel” for their words? That you are verite in the style of Wisemen, presenting what you see as the truth of that town and its drug problem? That he includes an interview with a person who is seamingless mentally retarded – was that nessicary? That the film has a character say “70 percent of the town is homeless” and then he cuts to an interview with a homeless man – what does that imply? That the filmmaker is proud of his lack of fact-checking, that he is using the “I’m an artist” filmmaking choice and yet isn’t the film a documentary about drug problems in a small town? This isn’t “Manufactured Landscapes” – maybe that’s the film he wanted it to feel like, but instead the film feels more like a really long episode of Intervention. One and a half hours of talking head interviews cut with some slow motion driving shots isn’t a great statement that needs to be defended – its sloppy and its proud of it. Slopiness is fine when you are making a 6 minute film for vimeo but this is the big leagues man – you are forcing a person to sit in your dark cave and spend one and a half hours of their life watching your work – you owe it to your audience to make something that took you some time to craft, something that you struggled with to make the best piece of work you could make at that moment in time, not a rush job, beginning to end.

  • Martha Stephens

    As a filmmaker and WV resident, I had many of the same thoughts as you, Tom. I also saw the film at Tribeca & I was surprised by how some of the audience reacted. Many were unsympathetic and I think a lack of context may have created this. It also felt like there was a very limited amount of time spent in Oceana. Thanks for this article; you articulated many things I’ve felt and haven’t been able to piece together.

  • James Lantz

    In the Kickstarter video to raise money for the documentary “Our Nixon”, the filmmaker said all the footage in the film was found and that they added nothing to it; she proudly said, “We didn’t add our voices or anything.” I found her statement to be poignant and reflective of the style that Tom is referencing here in this post. To me, it seems that our “over mediated age” (as Tom calls it) has produced value in not having a voice: where anything that has a point of view, is suspect — and that the only kind of ‘truth’ that has value is one that is found whole, without comment, as though it washed up on the shore for us to document where in the sand it lies.

    • SmithDoc

      unfortunately, “we didn’t add our voices or anything” is something of a naive remark. while perhaps they didn’t literally add their voices, editing is the voice of the silent author, and perhaps they did a sound design to deliberately highlight certain moments from the original footage -all of that is “voice”.

      • James Lantz

        SmithDoc, I agree that it’s naive and I would add, safe — when you assert that you’ve produced a film without ‘a voice’ and by default, no discernible point of view, you can never be accused of taking sides, or be held accountable.

        • SmithDoc

          every frame of film that ends up in the final cut is the responsibility of the author. while certain things may occur or be said outside of the filmmaker’s responsibility while the camera is rolling, all of the material that ends up in the final cut of the film is the result of the director or editor’s decision making. so they can say such things as “we didn’t add our voice” in order to appear neutral, but anyone who works in film or journalism knows that they’re simply playing the fool. also, if such a filmmaker is too cowardly to own the entire product they’ve created, that’s also a serious problem.

          • lennypane

            As the director of Our Nixon I just want to interject that my comment is being taken way out of context here, and has nothing to do with the discussion at hand. “We didn’t add our own voices” was simply part of an explanation that the film is made up of only “found” archival material. As in: we didn’t add a voiceover. That was all it meant.

            Of course the film, taken as a whole, represents the “voice” of the filmmaker. I mean… duh. Why would I want to hide the idea that my voice is absent from a work of art? I’m quite proud that the film is made in my voice (as is, I’m sure, Sean Dunne).

            Anyway, I humbly suggest that one should probably look at my comment in context, read one interview with me, or — what an idea! — watch the film (or even the trailer), before running all over the place with uninformed tangents concluding that I am “cowardly,” “naive” or “playing the fool.”

          • SmithDoc

            my reply wasn’t directed towards your program. it was a theoretical argument, directed more towards the use of the quote by the initial poster and the subsequent defend by james lantz. apologies for any misunderstanding.

          • James Lantz

            Hi Penny, congratulations on your film and truly, I didn’t mean any disrespect — just that I thought your Kickstarter video’s comment about not adding your own voice, meant something to me in the context of this discussion, and it is one that I found poignant. I understand that you meant it literally; I heard it for the metaphor.

            I’ve watched your trailer, and read some of the reviews and interviews and, having grown up as a kid with Nixon in the background, I’m VERY much looking forward to seeing your film. From what I’ve seen and read, it looks great!

            I hope our paths cross one day and we can have a longer discussion on voice in documentary filmmaking — my own doc (I hope) will be done in the coming year and we can compare notes then.

  • Liz Jones

    Interesting discussion. I have not seen the film yet, but I recognize the questions raised as they pertain to other styles of filmmaking, and the way that other films sometimes deal with their subjects.

    Is it possible that the lyricism and lack of institutional contextualization in “Doc Vague” films is a result of the filmmakers honoring their subjects in not trying to present them in a way that they wouldn’t (or can’t) present themselves? In order to work with subjects who are far out of the mainstream, one sometimes has to withold their own common sense notions of how problems–in an ideal world– are known and should be addressed, because that is not the truth that the subjects know in their own life. To juxtapose them to a strictly factual, institutionalized point of view, to a certain extent, minimizes the validity of their own perspectives about their situation.

    Perhaps these styles of documentary combat another common trend in documentary, which is to pick an idealized subject through whom to tell a heroic story or push an activistic agenda. There is nothing wrong with that, but not all stories are heroic stories, and to try to present subjects as such when they are not is a disingenuous act in itself.

    • Liz Jones

      Also, in reading the filmmaker’s interview with WV Public broadcasting, it really sounded like the filmmakers came to the idea of making this film in a really organic way — they simply met interesting people who had an interesting story.

      There are filmmakers that will pick their subjects based on the larger issue or agenda they are trying to put forth in the film, and there are filmmakers who decide to follow subjects simply because they personally find something interesting about them. The filmmaker did say that his own father had struggled with addiction, and it’s likely his approach to his subjects was influenced by a sensitivity to that background. Another film these styles of documentary remind me of, from several years ago, is “Billy The Kid,” which was a fantastic and simple documentary. Maybe even the documentary that kicked off the New Doc Vague trend of recent years.

  • Flicker

    Completely agree! I could make a list of films that I had the very same problem with last year making the circuit. I will also throw in that I know programmers are busy, but do a bit of research….please.

  • http://www.rrcinema.com/ RR_Cinema

    What are the responsibilities taken on by social documentaries? Honestly, I think the only task we filmmakers have is to make a great film that engages with reality. Isn’t a poetic or ecstatic truth worth more than getting the numbers right? I say this because docs take years to make, and in this sense, they really cannot keep up with good reporting. I think this is forcing filmmakers to think beyond the agenda, into a more creative approach.

    It seems that in this case the statistics were not informational as much as they were evidence of the emotional state of the characters.

    There is a growing divide between documentaries driven by journalism vs those inspired by cinema. I don’t think either type should get a pass.

    • Tom Roston

      I want it all; I want the ecstatic truth and the numbers to be right. Not possible? I think it is.

      • http://www.rrcinema.com/ RR_Cinema

        I agree and disagree. Some docs don’t need numbers. However, it seems like you are implying that there comes a point on a certain narrative path that you do need them. I must admit I feel this way due to what I have tried to accomplish in my own films, by deliberately setting aside that kind of information.

    • Cee Bee

      “Isn’t a poetic or ecstatic truth worth more than getting the numbers right?”

      okay but …what EXACTLY is a poetic or ecstatic truth??

      If one’s “truth” doesn’t have some grounding in “the numbers” — perhaps it is not truth at all. Fantasy, delusion, rationalization — laced into certain truths — can be found on any street corner and behind any door. But what does this really teach us? Often, not that much. Or certainly, not enough.

      For society to move forward in the most constructive and just manner possible we need to understand material truth as well. Maybe this isn’t as inspiring or interesting to some documentarians, but for those who choose to take on socially sensitive and complex issues, it should be considered a moral imperative. There are already way too many corrupted sources of “fact” and information deluding the American mind into irresponsibility and confusion. We don’t need any more.

  • Steve Hyde

    I love this kind of film writing. Thanks

  • Andalou00

    Great article. I dislike stats and experts in social issue docs, but a lot of things about Oxyana didn’t sit we’ll with me either. It was beautifully shot, but I think the process of making the film, not the end product is the root of my discomfort. I have an ill feeling there wasn’t a lot of compassion during the filming nor accountability to the community upon release. I can’t see the end product being altruistic if the process might not have been.

  • SmithDoc

    The risk in this new doc movement is a confusion between objectivity and subjectivity. On the one hand we like to hold ourselves to the ideal of capturing reality with an objective, unerring eye, and that whatever is said by subjects onscreen is simply the voice of a character… and if that character lies or exaggerates, then so be it. Can’t a character lie in a fictional work?

    Unfortunately, and in spite of our naive worship of objectivity, we remain entangled in the same authorial processes as the older generation: our choice of camera placement, or choice to hit the record button, our choice of interview question, our choice of editing, sound design, and color, all of that is utterly subjective.

    The question remains, as storytellers… how do we present a coherent, immersive vision that simultaneously acknowledges the bias of authorship but also pays respect to the broader issues that we will unfailing fail to entirely capture? If we can strike that balance without ruining our films, and without insulting our audiences, then we can say our job is done.

    …but “issues” are complicated and a bit ambiguous… I can understand why filmmakers may want to avoid taking a side… but as authors we are often forced to choose a perspective. Most of us take the easy route by making an authority figure the main character of a narrative, because that’s the most efficient route with the greatest access. Yet this access often goes hand in hand with giving that character a platform for their position, which may not be our goal if we’re attempting to be objective.

    The question ultimately comes down to, how do we position ourselves, as filmmakers committed to reality, in a way that respects the scope of the world in which we’ve embedded ourselves, while also accessing the intimacy of real life, that impressionism, that we’re committed to?

  • jp comeau

    I have not seen this particular film, but as a documentary filmmaker I would instinctively say that it is disingenuous for a filmmaker to claim that people spouting ‘statistics’ and stating ‘facts’ unchallenged are simply sharing their perspectives on a given situation… especially in the context of a small town whose inhabitants could reasonably be expected to know what’s going on in their community. I don’t have a problem with these things being in the film, but I would say that at the very least there should be a prominent disclaimer at the end of the film indicating that its subjects were expressing their personal views, that their statements may or may not be factual and that no attempt was made to confirm their veracity. Instead it appears that this filmmaker intentionally included such things without filtering them in order to enhance the shock value of his piece… Again, I haven’t seen the film (and after reading this don’t plan to spend money doing so), so by necessity I am speculating based on what I’ve read here, but I have immense respect for Tom Roston and his words on this problem ring very true…

  • Roger May

    Tom, please note the typo in the third paragraph – Ocean, which should be Oceana. I echo Martha’s comments. My personal disdain for Dunne aside, I’m working to not allow a knee-jerk reaction. I’m looking for depth, but keep coming up short. I appreciate your time and attention to this film.

    • interactive

      Hi Roger – You are correct that the city is Oceana not Ocean. The post was updated to reflect our typo.

  • David Van Taylor

    I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t comment in that way. But I will note that it’s one thing to exclude statistics and context from your film, while it’s another thing entirely to have people offering statistics that are misleading or wrong without somehow flagging that.

    • Joe Angio

      David, I haven’t seen it either but I couldn’t agree more. As a filmmaker and magazine editor who was once a fact-checker, I can assure you that unsubstantiated statistics (as well as straight-up “factual” assertions) would never pass muster if they were proven to be inaccurate. Just because a documentary might aspire to “art” rather than journalism (not that they’re mutually exclusive) it doesn’t mean you can play fast and loose with (or ignore) the facts.

      I’ve had to cut plenty of great quotes—both in print and in my films—because I later discovered what the person was saying is false, even though it meant sacrificing a revealing detail or character trait. That’s where the work comes in.

  • Tom

    Hey Char, I’m glad to hear that. The quotes from me in the piece slightly misrepresent my thoughts which were specifically that I hoped people were still reading Burroughs; not that he’d become obsolete. I was somewhat lamenting missing today the spiked, intelligent creative blast Burroughs provided, and was hoping people were still inspired by him the way I was.

  • Tom Roston

    I don’t so. I think Leviathan gets to be what it is–an impressionistic, immersive experience of being on a fishing boat. It so clearly is nothing more (or less) than that. It doesn’t seek to make any social commentary, so it doesn’t have the same intellectual or artistic responsibilities that I think Oxyana does.