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Jennifer D. Fox

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Buddhist Samaya and The Making of 'My Reincarnation'

Posted: 05/23/11 02:46 PM ET

This morning, I awoke out of a deep sleep with the memory that I'd been dreaming of my films -- all of them in a row like children -- and somehow in the dream it was clear that each of them was a birth for me. Each one pushing out of me; each one now on the earth; each one making their way and doing what they were meant to do in the world. I couldn't remember much more ...

I couldn't shake my dream. It reminded me of a young woman at the Munich film school, where we showed "My Reincarnation" alongside the two DocFest Festival Screenings in early May. After the lecture the woman stood up and told me how much she loved the film. Then she asked how did I keep the belief in the film during the 20+ years it took to make? How did I have the "faith" not to give up? It's a question that comes up at every screening.

My Reincarnation - Trailer from Zohe Films on Vimeo.

"My Reincarnation" is a very special project. I began shooting it in 1989 at age 29 when I was on sabbatical from filmmaking after completing my first film, "Beirut: The Last Home Movie", shot in the war in Lebanon. After that six-year filmmaking journey, I wasn't sure I ever wanted to make another film again. So I took an informal job as a secretary traveling with my Teacher, the high Tibetan Buddhist Master, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, frequently referred to by his followers with the honorific "Rinpoche". Being around Rinpoche was so unique that thought I should start filming him. So I brought one of the first small format video cameras and began to record his private life as we traveled from place to place. I had no idea what I would do with the footage. At the same time, Rinpoche introduced me to his family and his son, then only 18 years old, Yeshi, whom I also began to film.

It was already common knowledge that Yeshi was the reincarnation of his father's uncle, a famous master who died at the hands of the Chinese. Knowing this, I started to imagine a father-son film where the son would wake up and recognize his reincarnation, return to Tibet and be enthroned in the monastery waiting for him. But when I told Yeshi of my filmmaking dream, he said I should forget it. He wanted nothing to do with this legacy. He was playing in a rock band and studying at the University.

I continued filming, but nothing happened and eventually I stopped traveling with Namkhai Norbu, put the footage aside, and made other films. Periodically I returned to record Rinpoche and Yeshi. Over a decade and a half went by and I was still filming my teacher, still waiting for a story to appear. Until slowly, I began to hear word that Yeshi's life was changing. He was flooded by visions of his past life ...

The young woman in Munich wanted to understand what kept me filming all those years, when nothing was happening. I took a deep breath. I always feel that speaking to film students is different than speaking to a lay audience. I wanted to unpack the journey of making "My Reincarnation" in a way that would strip away the mystique, so she would have courage on her own filmmaking path. Here are the cliff notes of what I said:

"My Reincarnation" was the film I was most afraid to make and tried to walk away from many times. Why? Because ...

  1. How do you show the spiritual on film when it all happens inside the mind?
  2. What was the story? There was no narrative for the first 18 years of shooting.
  3. Most of the people in the film business rolled their eyes every time I said I was making a film about a Buddhist Teacher.
  4. If I didn't handle the Teachings properly, the Buddhist students would be angry. But if I didn't figure out how to make the Teachings simple and accessible, no one would watch the film. I wasn't sure it was possible to satisfy both audiences in one film. I was bound to be crucified by somebody.
  5. This was going to be the film that would end my career because it didn't fit into the current craze for sexy, violent, political documentaries that is so prevalent.

Twenty-two years later, the reality looks totally different. Broadcasters will be airing the film internationally and festivals want it all over the world. There I was standing before this student with a successful film. It always seems easy when you see a finished product and all the problems have been solved. But the question for the young film student in front of me and for all of us is how to keep going in the face of all the obstacles life throws at you along the path?

Quite honestly, I told the audience, I kept going on "My Reincarnation" because -- unlike my other work -- I felt I had a responsibility (which is probably not a strong enough a word) to do something on the subject with the filmmaking skills I had. In Buddhism, they call it Samaya, which means a sacred commitment between a student and a Teacher. You see I had been given the gift of rare access to this unique man, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, and to a whole esoteric teaching, called Dzogchen, the highest path in Tibetan Buddhism, which is threatened with extinction. While despite this access I had not become a great practitioner, I felt like I had to share what I had seen with the world.

But to whom had I made this commitment? Certainly not to Chögyal Namkhai Norbu -- my Teacher. If I had ever asked him if he wanted me to make this film, he would have looked at me askance and laughed. But perhaps it was my way to repay him for all he had taught me, even if I failed to become the Buddhist student that I imagined he hoped I would become (not that he ever expressed any of these wishes to me). Or maybe it was just me who was disappointed in myself? Why hadn't I developed more when I had been given so much opportunity? So without verbalizing it to anyone, the film was my way to give back to all those who could benefit from my privilege, not in the sense of proselytizing, but only in sharing this special and endangered teaching, culture and Teacher.

"But the fear?" The young woman in the audience in Munich insisted, "How did you deal with the fear?"

"I am sure some people don't feel fear," I said, "But I always do -- on all my projects. Each film requires me to create different strategies to sidestep the fear inside and the voices outside. The world will always tell you that whatever you are making cannot be done or should not be done."

"And now how do you feel now?" She continued. "Was it worth it?"

"Truthfully?" I asked and I saw her shake her head. I took a deep breath: "I am really happy I made this film. When I see such diverse audiences around the world responding to this story and broadcasters wanting to air it, I feel it was worth it. I didn't know it beforehand, but now I realize that it is a document that will stand for years to come. I cannot imagine another high Buddhist Teacher and his son ever giving this kind of access to a filmmaker again. The film is proof of how special a Spiritual Leader Chögyal Namkhai Norbu is. He wants you to see the Teachings integrated in life -- not in an elevated way. This access is unprecedented and gives the film its pure power."

Although I didn't say it then, I guess I feel similar to the mothers I know, who have told me about their various experiences in labor. Every birth is different. This one has been longer and more protracted than most and is still going on as we try to pay for the completion costs to get the film out in the world. But it seems so worth it now. And when I think back, quite honestly, there is an element of faith at work in the making of "My Reincarnation". If you just keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, it will turn out well. Certainly, now that I consider it, all creation requires faith.

You can support the distribution of "My Reincarnation" by contributing to the film's Kickstarter Campaign. Producer credits are available for larger donations. For more information on the film, including Jennifer Fox's blog, visit the "My Reincarnation" website or contact info@myreincarnation.com.