By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Jennifer Fox’s documentary film “My Reincarnation” begins enigmatically, with bodies floating in a pool of water and unidentified images shimmering, as if viewed through water. We come to see that the water represents, among other things, separation between the father and the son, who form the core of the film. The shimmering images represent a dreamlike state, fitting for a father and son who, though very different in some ways, place great faith in dreams and visions.
The father is Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, born in Tibet in 1938. At the age of five, he had been recognized as a reincarnation of a powerful teacher named Adzom Drugpa. He’s spent his entire life studying and teaching the Buddhist path of Dzogchen, sometimes translated as “Great Perfection.”
The father’s full name is, oddly enough, never mentioned in the film. The teachings of Dzogchen can seem quite complex, and “My Reincarnation” touches on them only in passing. The interplay between the father and son draws the viewer in, but a more solid grounding in history and philosophy would have helped the narrative’s clarity.
But on the other hand, Ms. Fox, who also did the cinematography for the film, shot footage of the family between 1988 and 2009 — a remarkable display of dedication. Yeshi progresses from a brash young teenager into a workaholic with a family of his own. He has entirely too much to get done each day.
The son, Khyentse Yeshi Namkhai, born in 1970, has an Italian mother and grew up in Italy. His Italian is much better than his Tibetan (though the film also features segments in English and Spanish), and as a younger man, he resents his father’s position. He sees the man who sired him only a few days every year because Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s Dozogchen teachings take the father around the world.
The son feels stuck in the father’s shadow, as many sons do. But that isn’t the only problem. The father believes Yeshi to be a reincarnation of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s own uncle, Khyentse Rinpoche, also a powerful teacher. And Yeshi feels unable to form his own identity.
Most of the year, Yeshi explains, he lives a prosaic existence with his mother and his sister, while his father travels the world.
But when his father does come home to roost, he brings students and media people with him. Yeshi confesses to Fox’s camera of his fury at the disruptions.
Nevertheless, Fox slowly and slyly plays up the parallels between the two men of two generations. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s witty, warm lectures draw plenty of belly laughs from his followers. He’s conquered the world’s language barriers with humor and with a disarmingly direct simplicity of speech. Watching Yeshi play with his own son and his niece, we see the same sparkle, the same affectionate directness.
Yeshi will have to make peace with his father’s position in the world. Less obvious, but brought out obliquely by Fox’s slowly simmering approach to family dynamics, is that the father must also make peace with his son’s life and choices.
As the film and life itself progress, the two men shuffle toward an uneasy peace. They find, after much strife, a few important similarities between them to drive their relationship. Between her up-close personality studies and her visual metaphors, Fox renders an indelible portrait of a unique family. (end)
“My Reincarnation” plays Feb. 24 through March 1 at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Avenue on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. For showtimes, prices, and directions, call 206-829-7863 or visit nwfilmforum.org/live/page/calendar/2040.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.