POV Kicks Off 25th Season with “My Reincarnation,” an Intimate Yet Epic Story
Of Spiritual Struggle Between Father and Son, Thursday, June 21, 2012 on PBS
High Tibetan Buddhist Teacher and Scholar Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche Believes his Italian-born Son, Yeshi, Is the Reincarnation of a Buddhist Master, But Yeshi Just Wants to Live a Normal Italian Life
The 25th anniversary season of POV (Point of View) is replete with films that offer remarkable and individual takes on stories of national and global significance, and Jennifer Fox’s My Reincarnation is no exception. It tells of the tireless work of exiled Tibetan Buddhist Master Namkhai Norbu to transmit the highest path of Tibetan Buddhism — called Dzogchen — around the world. Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche (“Rinpoche” is a Tibetan honorific title for Reincarnate Teachers meaning “precious one”) feels enormous responsibility for keeping an ancient spiritual and cultural tradition alive in the face of a 50-year long diaspora that threatens Tibetan identity.
But Fox’s film goes beyond reporting on the state of Tibetan Buddhism in exile. It enters Namkhai Norbu’s story in unprecedented fashion. Filmed over 20 years, My Reincarnation follows a long, gentle, sometimes amusing, yet intense struggle between him and his Italian-born son, Yeshi. Namkhai Norbu, along with the Tibetan Buddhist community, is convinced Yeshi is the reincarnation of his own master and destined to take up Namkhai Norbu’s work. Yeshi, however, was raised in Italy and feels and looks more like an up-and-coming young businessman than anybody’s spiritual master. Yet he can’t quite turn away from his father’s legacy. There are physical proofs of his reincarnation according to Buddhist tradition and his own spiritual yearnings. And there is the quiet, implacable determination of his father.
My Reincarnation opens POV’s 25th anniversary season on Thursday, June 21, 2012, at 10 p.m. on PBS. The season continues on Thursdays at 10 p.m. through Oct. 25 and concludes with fall and winter specials. (Check local listings.) American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the winner of a Special Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking, two IDA awards for Best Continuing Series and the NALIP award for Corporate Commitment to Diversity.
Fox began filming Namkhai Norbu in 1988 when, as a filmmaker and student of the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, she took a four-year sabbatical from filmmaking and worked as his secretary. She started out recording his everyday life, including his work, family and travels, intent on documenting a spiritual life to which she’d been given unusual access. She returned 13 years later, and periodically after that, until 2009, amassing more than 1,000 hours of footage from Italy and the family’s travels all over the world, including Venezuela, Russia and the United States (in Massachusetts and New York).
Using this footage plus archival material, My Reincarnation achieves a remarkably intimate and vivid account of Namkhai Norbu’s life and work. Fleeing Tibet in 1959 in the wake of the Chinese takeover, along with thousands of other Tibetans including the H.H. the Dalai Lama, he settled in Italy, married an Italian woman, Rosa, had two children and began the work that brought him worldwide recognition as a Spiritual Master and Scholar. The film shows 20 years of constant travel as he lectures, counsels, leads ritual Buddhist observances and Tibetan gatherings and hosts the Dalai Lama. He ages, of course, but also appears to take on an extra burdens — not only the hopes, fears and challenges of spiritual seekers and Tibetans scattered in foreign lands, but also the survival of Tibetan Buddhism itself.
And so a movie-within-the-movie unfolds, because the struggle to preserve Tibetan Buddhism — to pass it on as a living legacy — extends to Namkhai Norbu’s family. Tibetan Buddhism depends greatly on unbroken lines of reincarnated lamas, who continue to teach and interpret the scriptures. Namkhai Norbu is himself a reincarnate master, and Yeshi, his first-born son, was recognized from birth as the reincarnation of his great-uncle, another famous Buddhist master, who died imprisoned by the Chinese after their invasion of Tibet. Various traditional proofs of reincarnation, particularly involving a child’s familiarity with the late lama’s objects, convinced not only Namkhai Norbu but also other Tibetans that Yeshi is a reincarnate master. The only one who isn’t convinced is Yeshi himself.
Yeshi is first seen in My Reincarnation as an intense, intelligent 18-year-old (he ages to 39 and Namkhai Norbu ages from 49 to 70 in the film) listening to his father’s teaching or helping with ceremonies, but hanging on the margins of events. Later, he’s an intense, intelligent young man on a fast-track to business success and all the things this can bring in Western society. Alternately amused and awe-struck by his Tibetan status, he can’t quite shake the overwhelming implications of it. He’s drawn along in his father’s wake but resists all the way. He doesn’t want to take up Buddhist study or teaching or to go to Tibet, as his father urges. Yeshi is especially unnerved by the idea of visiting the very monastery where his great-uncle had been master and where students await Yeshi as their master’s reincarnation.
One of the delights of My Reincarnation is sharing Yeshi’s views of his father and thoughts about the spiritual legacy to which he is heir. Even more striking is witnessing Yeshi’s spiritual evolution, the highlight of which is his visit to the Tibetan monastery of his great uncle, where the local monks and villagers greet him with ancient ceremony and respect as their reincarnate Master. Such a profound demonstration of faith and spiritual continuity cannot help but have a great impact on Yeshi, and begins to awaken the heir to Namkhai Norbu’s great mission.
“At first, I didn’t know what I was filming,” says director Fox. “I just knew I had incredible access to this High Tibetan Master. For all that is so interesting about Tibetan Buddhism in today’s world, I was always drawn by the universal father-son struggle. Namkhai Norbu wants to save his traditional culture and faith by passing them onto Yeshi. But Yeshi wants nothing more than to be modern. What is extraordinary for Yeshi is that questions of personal identity become entangled in the fate of a 2,500-year-old spiritual tradition.
“The father-son story is a narrative that we can all relate to, as the protagonists discover that love often doesn’t look the way we expect it to look,” she continues. “By the same token, the film is an entry into this world of esoteric Buddhism, which acknowledges that there is so much more to the universe than what we see. On a deep level, most religions share the core of this belief. I’ve been really gratified that My Reincarnation has inspired people to talk about their spirituality, to open up conversations among Tibetan Buddhists, rabbis, shamans and priests. It’s been an incredible journey in faith.”
My Reincarnation is a co-production of Zohe Film Productions, Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation, Lichblick Film, Ventura Film and Vivo Film.
About the Filmmaker:
Jennifer Fox (Director, Co-producer, Cinematographer)
Jennifer Fox is an internationally acclaimed director, producer, camerawoman and educator. Her first film, Beirut: The Last Home Movie won seven international awards, including Best Documentary Film and Best Cinematography at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival and Best Documentary at the 1988 Cinema Du Reel Festival, Paris.
She produced, directed and shot the groundbreaking ten-hour PBS/BBC/ARTE series An American Love Story, which received a Gracie Award for Best Television Series and was named “One of the Top Ten Television Series of 1999″ by The New York Times, Time Out, The Boston Globe, Time Magazine and the New York Daily News. Fox also co-produced, directed and shot the Danish co-production/Sundance Channel internationally acclaimed six-part film Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman. Fox’s credits include serving as executive producer of many award-winning films including Love & Diane (POV 2003); On the Ropes; Double Exposure; Cowboys, Lawyers and Indians; Absolutely Safe?; Project Ten: Real Stories From a Free South Africa; and the dramatic feature Upstate. She has consulted on numerous documentaries, including Sundance Grand Prize winner Southern Comfort and the Slamdance Grand Prize winner Stone Reader.
Fox, who was born in Philadelphia and now lives in New York and Zurich, lectures and teaches filmmaking nationally and internationally.
Director: Jennifer Fox
Co-producers: Jennifer Fox, Babeth M. Vanloo, Carl Ludwig Rettinger, Andres Pfaeffli,
Elda Guidinetti, Marta Donzelli, Gregorio Paonessa
Executive Producers: Dan Cogan, Adrian Melnikov, Joanna Plafsky
Cinematographer: Jennifer Fox
Editor: Sabine Krayenbuhl
Original Music: Jan Tilman Schade, Moe Jaksch
Running Time: 86:46
POV Series Credits:
Executive Producer: Simon Kilmurry
Co-Executive Producer: Cynthia López
VP, Production & Programming: Chris White
Series Producer: Yance Ford
Coordinating Producer: Andrew Catauro
Awards and Festivals:
- Top 20 Audience Award, International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, 2010
- Golden Eagle Award, CINE Golden Eagle Film & Video Competition, 2010
- Silver Palm Award, Mexico International Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, Hamptons International Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, Sydney Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, Asian Buddhist Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival, 2012
- Official Selection, DocPoint-Helsinki Documentary Film Festival, 2012
For a complete list of festivals and screenings, visit http://myreincarnationfilm.com/.
Meet the film’s protagonist, Tibetan Buddhist Master Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, in-person during his 2012 U.S. Summer Teaching Tour! For more information, visit www.tsegyalgar.org/. Read more: The Crystal and the Way of Light by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche (Snow Lion Publications, www.snowlionpub.com).
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