When Jennifer Fox began shooting a documentary on Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and his Italian-born son Yeshi in 1989, she had no idea how it would turn out or even if she'd have anything to show for her labours.
It was an intensely personal journey on two levels because Norbu is Fox's spiritual teacher and both father and son gave the New York-based filmmaker unrestricted access to the most intimate details of their lives.
At its heart, My Reincarnation, which has its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, is a remarkable story of a devoted father and a prodigal son who for years refused to accept that he is the reincarnation of his father's uncle, a Dzogchen master (the highest path in Tibetan Buddhism) who died after the Chinese invaded Tibet, and that he was destined to become a spiritual leader.
“I had no idea the story would turn out that way,” Fox told SBS by phone from Melbourne where she was raising funds to complete the doco and support its US theatrical release, accompanied by Rinpoche (literally “Precious One), as Norbu is called by his followers.
“In 1989 when I started filming Yeshi and Rinpoche, I said to Yeshi that what would be a great film is if he woke up, recognised his reincarnation, went back to Tibet and started to teach, and he said, 'Forget it, it will never happen.'
“I was quite worried for many years that I didn't have a film. I did many times try to give up the project and I thought I had given up the project and something would happen to draw me back in. By 2000 I thought this is impossible to make a film about spirituality so I put it aside, then a broadcaster in the Netherlands who knew I had this footage and was a student of Rinpoche said I am the only one who can tell this story and you have to keep going.
“It took her about a year to convince me to pick up the camera again. And slowly over the last eight years Yeshi began to manifest his spiritual change externally and I thought now we have a film.”
There is raw honesty in the film as Rinpoche admits he wasn't a good father because he was so preoccupied with teaching around the world. “I could not be an ordinary father for my family,” he says, while Yeshi acknowledges, “We don't have a real emotional relationship, my father and I. I didn't want to be the son of the master.”
Yeshi, who worked for years with IBM in Italy, is shown insisting he just wants a normal life with his family and to indulge in his hobbies of photography and playing music.
Fox observes, “A lot of fathers and sons have tensions and cultural differences and differences in expectations. But as Yeshi matured and became a father himself, he understood his own father better. He started to practice and meditate more and to have these big visions of his life in Tibet and he could accept them and go with them. He realised these are the same visions he had as a child.”
The film shows Yeshi returning to Tibet where he's greeted like a hero and seated on the throne of his predecessor. After the Beijing Olympics the Chinese government clamped down on travel to Tibet and Yeshi has not been able to return.
In following the master and his son, Fox travelled far and wide, from Italy and Tibet to Moscow, Mexico, New York and Venezuela. Norbu agreed to being filmed in situations where others may have wanted privacy, such as when he's hospitalised to be treated for cancer, and in frank exchanges with his students. “He allowed the camera close to show his real person, warts and all, and the real way a teacher works with students to help them evolve and awaken,” she says.
His reaction when his son gains enlightenment is oddly muted: there's no backslapping or celebrating. Fox says that's due to the Buddhist teaching that its followers should not become attached or give undue importance to any single event because that would stand in the way of true realisation. “Yeshi knows he doesn't need his father's approval now because he's on his own path,” she says.
No stranger to Australia, Fox spent some time here in her 20s working on a yacht, on a cattle farm and planting fruit trees. Her first film, Beirut:The Last Home Movie, which chronicled three months in the life of a Lebanese family living in that heavily-bombed city, screened at the Sydney festival and took the best documentary and cinematography prizes at the 1988 Sundance festival.
Her most recent film, Flying Confessions of a Free Woman, a co-production with SBS, explored the role of the modern woman, filmed in 17 countries. She's been invited to sit on the documentary jury at this edition of the Sydney festival.
Financing My Reincarnation has been a long and arduous process for the resourceful Fox, who entered into a co-production with European culture channel ARTE and six other Euro broadcasters and pre-sold rights to the PBS network in the US. She's discussing distribution deals for Australia.
The filmmaker also launched a public appeal for funds via a campaign dubbed Kickstarter, aiming to raise up $US100,000 to pay for things like subtitling, music rights and an educational guide for schools and universities and to support a multi-city theatrical release in the US. As of May 10, 245 backers had forked out a total of $US59,218.
“This whole movement of 'crowd funding' in America is exciting,” she says. “Pre-sales and co-productions pay less and less for documentaries. My Reincarnation has seven international partners, all broadcasters, but what they pay is so little it's not enough to cover the costs of releasing it so we're looking for donors.”
Filming on and off over 20 years, Fox assembled more than 1,000 hours of footage. Yet she says, “I've never taken a salary from the film. I support myself by teaching (at NYU Tisch School of Film and TV, Zurich University and staging master-classes at the Binger Film Lab in Amsterdam) and consulting on other documentaries. You work all the time to survive.”
Click here for information on My Reincarnation's screening times at the Sydney Film Festival.