Note: This interview contains spoilers about the documentary My Reincarnation.
POV: Tell us about My Reincarnation. Give us a thumbnail summary of what the film is about and the story.
Jennifer Fox, director: My Reincarnation is about a father who is Tibetan, who ended up in Italy, married an Italian woman and had an Italian son. The father is trying to protect his Tibetan culture and the son wants to be a normal kid going to high school, to have a normal life. The father wants him to continue the culture and the son refuses. Over 20 years of filming, things changed quite radically and the film is really about what happens in families and what happens in trying to save a culture that’s being oppressed, which is the Tibetan Buddhist culture in China.
POV: Dzogchen. Is it sect? Or is it practice?
Fox: Dzogchen is considered the highest path in Tibetan Buddhism. In Buddhism there are three main paths, the first being sutra which is what we think of as a monk, and the whole concept is renunciation. We renounce our negative emotions like anger, etc. We renounce sexuality, we take a vow, these kind of things. That’s considered the lower vehicle in Buddhism. The second vehicle is what we think of as tantra and it’s the path of transformation. Rather than renounce, we transform our negative emotions. We transform sexuality from something base into something pure, for example. And the higher vehicle is considered Dzogchen, in which you neither renounce or transform — you liberate
It’s a very high, esoteric teaching and in Tibet it was kept secret. And what’s so amazing is that when the Tibetans went into exile in 1959, and Tibetan Buddhism was taken out of Tibet and brought to the West by Tibetan masters, suddenly the masters began to teach this very high and secret esoteric knowledge to westerners. Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche was actually the first to teach Dzogchen in the West. Since then, many masters teach Dzogchen, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and it’s become a really exciting practice in the West.
POV: How did you get involved with this story. How did you find it?
Fox: I was a student of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche who is the father. I met him in 1985 and finished my first film, Beirut: The Last Home Movie, in 1987 and soon after wanted to take a break from filmmaking. I took an informal job as his secretary, traveling the world with him and I thought I’d never make another film again.
POV: You were his secretary? When you first started making the film. How did that path begin with you becoming his secretary?
Fox: It was very informal. I was really ready to never make another film again. I had made Beirut: The Last Home Movie, which, thank God, was very successful, and went around the world with it, won Sundance, all of that. Around 1989, I was ready to give it all up. I thought I wanted to devote myself more to my spiritual practice. Rinpoche was traveling the world without any support and basically I just said “I’ll help you,” and he said “Great!” It was right at the point of this technological change, when Hi-8 cameras were coming out. They were small, portable little cassettes and I could throw one in a bag with me while I was writing his notes, while I was booking his flights, all of that. I just started to film on the side.
POV: At what point did you realize you had something very special here?
Fox: Quite honestly, about 18 years into filming. It was not a film that came naturally as a film. It came naturally to follow my teacher and film him and to follow Yeshi, but as a film the narrative really didn’t gel until Yeshi went back to Tibet and was enthroned. For most of those 18 years, he was basically saying that he didn’t want anything to do with this Tibetan tradition. He wanted to be normal. In fact he became an IT executive working for various companies including IBM, married, and had a family. He was going as far away from his father’s culture as he could, at least on the outside, and I think inside, secretly, as he got older, he began to practice, things began to happen and that’s when the story changed.
When I met Yeshi, as a filmmaker, a lightbulb turned on — here’s a story, a father-son story, a universal story. It’s something I very much related to. I didn’t get along with my mother most of my life, till I was about 40. And then suddenly in my 40s, I started to understand her and at my age now, I don’t even remember why I was ever angry at her. Yeshi goes through a very similar transformation. I mean, in the beginning, he was very open about talking about his father and how angry he was at his father, how much he didn’t agree with his father’s methods as a father. In fact I was surprised it didn’t take any skill to get him to talk about it. He was completely there and I think in a way, that’s a testament to his relationship with his father. He absolutely was not afraid to say what he thought. Of course, Rinpoche wasn’t happy, but he also really believed in giving his son freedom to be who he wanted to be. Namkhai Norbu’s main thrust as a teacher is giving his students freedom — that one should find their own way, not to dictate the path and he actually raised his son like that. He didn’t send Yeshi to a monastery to be trained as a great teacher as he was and as the son’s reincarnation was. He thought if the son is really somebody, if he’s really the reincarnation of my uncle, he will manifest on his own.
POV: There’s a very interesting section in the film where Yeshi goes back to Tibet. What were you experiencing as a filmmaker when you were witnessing that?
Fox: Well, I’d love to say I went back to Tibet with him, but it happens to be the one sequence I didn’t shoot. He went to Tibet under the radar with his brother-in-law Luigi and luckily his brother-in-law brought a camera and gave us access to the footage. I didn’t know Yeshi went until he came back. We met up and he was a different person. I can really attest to my visceral experience of him post Tibet. He was radiating light and I remember after seeing him that night I couldn’t sleep at all and was just having these incredibly fast, raging dreams — he had kind of thrown me into a state which can happen when someone is in a spiritual state that radiates. And it was just mind-blowing and I asked him if I could see the footage. It was only when I saw that footage that I really knew we had a film.
POV: I want to talk a little about your work more broadly. When I look at Flying Confessions of a Free Woman or An American Love Story, there are many stories which take a long time to tell, which take on big topics but in a very intimate way. When you’re conceiving a project how do you go about developing it?
Fox: What I’m interested in is the way personal stories intersect with political stories — how the personal is political and how the microcosm becomes the macrocosm and vice versa. I feel that in every family, you can find everything in society. It’s all playing in this small canvas and if you look deeply you will find everything about politics, everything about gender, everything about religion. I guess I’ve never finished looking at my own family story and trying to figure out why I’m here and how it’s made me, so it always goes back to self somehow. We’re always telling autobiographical stories over and over again. However, I do want to say that every film I’ve made grapples with a new question. For me, My Reincarnation wrestles with this question of: How do we investigate spirituality in a medium that’s visual? My Reincarnation is a film all about interior lives, both family life but also spiritual life. How do we show the interior and find a story to show spirituality. In this case I use a family drama actually to investigate the Tibetan spiritual religion.
POV: Can you talk a little bit about the role of the documentary filmmaker?
Fox: The role of a documentary filmmaker first of all is a very privileged role. We get to spend our lives investigating reality and bringing the things that are not immediately evident to the eye, to the surface. I think our job is really to turn reality over and let humanity see what’s beneath the surface that is not readily available to be seen. We get to investigate it and to be a kind of “truth” sayer. I put truth in quotes only because truth is relative, very changeable. It’s a high responsibility to be a documentary filmmaker, especially in a day and age when we are making films that are so highly crafted that they border on fiction.
POV: What do you mean by that?
Fox: There was a time back in the old days when the idea of even mixing interviews and cinéma vérité was abhorrent — the purity of cinema. We know now of course that even pure cinéma vérité is fake in a sense. That the camera observes, that the subjects feel the observation and change their behavior. Therefore, I would say there is no subject forgetting the camera. That the subject is always aware of the camera. Therefore, the camera is always influencing the scene. We’re using voiceover, we’re mixing voiceover, interviews, animation and cinéma vérité. We’re setting up shots. It’s all being edited into very fine dramaturgy. The complication is that real life doesn’t fit dramatic plot. Our lives are more like multiples of the dramatic arch. So in film, we’re reducing reality to a single line. Therefore, it isn’t really the truth, but it’s a synopsis of the truth. We do that for a reason. We did it even as cave people around a fire, because we’re trying to get a handle on this thing called reality that’s so complex and as human beings, we’re trying to make sense of the thing that is nonsensible. So we reduce, we simplify. Filmmakers are sort of the modern cave dwellers telling simplified stories to help us understand our existence. However, it does become a kind of fiction as we simplify.
So just because those are real people up on the screen, we’ve crafted a simplification of their life that is very similar to fiction. Hopefully that fiction is carrying some essential truth in it. But of course in a modern world, a lot of it isn’t. It’s up to the viewer to decide, is that true or not? The irony of documentary filmmaking is sometimes less overt craft and narrativeness doesn’t yet necessarily make the film more true. Reality television proves that to us. It’s all fake and they’re doing very little manipulation in a sense, they’re just cutting things that they see. They’re not putting in interviews and a lot of narration and working it and having music to make you feel something. And yet, it’s as false as you get.
POV: How much did you shoot with this film? How many hours did you end up with?
Fox: The first period of shooting was from 1989 till about 1995. I put the footage aside, didn’t think I was going to make a film. I then went back and started shooting again in 2002 and kept shooting till 2009. I shot about 1,000 hours of footage. We actually logged the footage probably for almost two years. Crazy. But that meant that when we did come to editing, everything was really well prepared. It was actually edited, first edited into a rough assembly by another editor named Mary Lampson, but that was an edit that didn’t have Yeshi in it. Then, we went back and it was once the son went to Tibet that we went back with Sabine Krayenbühl and edited again for more than a year.
POV: Faith and spirituality can sometimes be polarizing or divisive, but there’s something about this particular story that invites people in regardless of their individual faith. You’ve been showing this film around the country, you’ve been bringing a lot of different people to talk about the film, about their own faith practice. Can you talk a little bit about how the film is speaking beyond the Buddhist community?
Fox: Well, I think there’s a lot of reasons why the film is speaking so widely. One of the reasons is the Dzogchen that Norbu teaches in fact is a very wide teaching that doesn’t ask you to choose it against something else. You can enter the Dzogchen teachings without renouncing your faith, without renouncing Judaism or Catholicism or Christianity or your Muslim faith. What we’ve discovered as the film goes around the country is that Jewish rabbis come and want to talk about it, because in fact the esoteric tradition in Buddhism is very similar to Judaism. That Catholic priests want to talk with it because the esoteric tradition in Catholicism is very similar. Shamans want to talk with it because it also has resonance with Shamanism. So in fact, My Reincarnation is really speaking and opening this very essential but non-denominational esoteric world to everybody.
After watching My Reincarnation, what I’d really love is that one, people take the time now to investigate Tibetan Buddhism which I think has a lot to offer. It’s a rich cultural knowledge that is in the world. Two, I’d like people to value spirituality more, whatever denomination it is. To say, “Maybe I should spend more time in my Christian meditation or in my Jewish meditation group and take more time for the self to reflect.”
I think the film really asks the viewers to see that reflection is really valuable in one’s life. There are these other dimensions that are important. It isn’t all what’s in front of us. It isn’t just going to work during the day, coming home, making a living, feeding your kids. But there are many dimensions that are going on that are valuable and rich and that are accessible to us.
POV: Has making this film transformed you? Has it been part of your spiritual practice in some way?
Fox: The question about whether or not making a film has transformed me is for me actually a really hard question to answer. The first thing that I really notice is it’s been a huge, huge teaching in faith because, honestly, I thought this film would never get finished, that there was no story, that it was going to kill me, that it was going to destroy my career, and on and on and on. How do you film spirituality, how do you show it? And for various reasons I kept coming back to filming Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and to filming Yeshi, but I never believed in the film. So, it has been a lesson in faith and of course faith is one of the keys of life. It’s also a key to filmmaking. Without faith we never do anything — believing that even if you can’t see the light in the tunnel, it will come if you just keep walking forward.