“I’ve always had dreams since I was five years old, strange visions,” says Yeshi Silvano Namkha. The son of high Tibetan Buddhist Master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, Yeshi resisted going to Tibet, he goes on, because of those dreams. He does go, eventually, attended by documentary-maker Jennifer Fox, who filmed him over some 20 years. One result of this collaboration is My Reincarnation, premiering on POV on 21 June. The film shows how Yeshi, born and raised in Italy, long resists the expectations that come along with being recognized at birth as the reincarnation of a famous spiritual master: Yeshi spends years finding other outlets for his energies, with Jennifer Fox’s camera in tow for nearly 20 years. Yeshi seems open about his doubts: “A person who doesn’t want to be what he is. And he ought to be something that he doesn’t like to be. Obviously for my father, I’m not a mistake. Because for him it’s right, for me it’s wrong.”
Yeshi’s questions multiply as he grows older, marries and has his own children, and finds a “stable” career with IBM. Perhaps unsurprisingly, has job has him on the road frequently, and as he drives, he talks to the camera: “I live in a very common Italian way,” he says, “I’m happy to be a normal, common father.” And yet he’s also restless. As Norbu’s fame expands, the film shows him with students in search of peace and wisdom: he offers cryptic comfort: “It’s how Buddha said,” he tells a young man in tears over his HIV positive status. “Everything is unreal, like a big dream. That is something real.” But as you come to understand Yeshi’s frustrations with his absent, much-adored dad, the film also suggests he’s leaning away from his secular life, thinking more about his father’s legacy. With sections divided by underwater scenes, making visible Yeshi’s own wondering at how his hesitation is turning into something like certainty. If the film can’t show his changing feelings, or even his decision to perform such changes, it can suggest how he fears and how he takes risks, even how he comes to appreciate the paradoxes of time, how his past can become his future, his memories his visions. And in these suggestions, the film might emulate Yeshi’s own process.