My Reincarnation, the latest documentary from Jennifer Fox (pictured), took 20 years to complete. Ahead of its U.S. broadcast premiere on PBS’s ‘POV’ strand tonight, realscreen talks to the veteran filmmaker about the creative challenges and tribulations she encountered during its lengthy production.
When Jennifer Fox set out in search of spiritual refuge away from the craziness of film world, little did she know she was in fact embarking on a documentary feature that would take two decades to complete.
In 1988, she released her first documentary Beirut: The Last Home Movie, to widespread acclaim. The film, a verité look at a Lebanese family that refused to leave its ancestral home in the face of civil war, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival, among other awards, and received theatrical distribution in seven countries.
A novice filmmaker and college drop-out, Fox spent two years promoting and distributing the film, but by the end she was burnt out. “It was just so hard I wasn’t sure I could do it again,” Fox said in an interview with realscreen. “It was really the first film that was like ‘it or me.’”
She retreated into the world of Tibetan Buddhism in 1989 and began traveling with Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, a Rome-based Buddhist master, as his secretary. Realizing she was in the unique position of being an insider in the world of a one of the last reincarnated spiritual masters trained in Dzogchen meditation, she bought a then-newfangled Hi8 camera and began filming the documentary that would eventually become My Reincarnation.
She soon met Rinpoche’s rebellious 18-year-old son who, despite being the reincarnation of a revered spiritual master, was had no intention of following in his father’s footsteps. Although the father-son clash gave Fox a point of conflict, it wasn’t enough to sustain a narrative and she moved on to other projects. Years later, however, she reconnected with Rinpoche and his son and finished the film 20 years after she began shooting it.
A coproduction between Fox’s Zohe Film Productions, Lichtblick Filmproduktion, Ventura Film and Vivo Film, My Reincarnation was primarily funded by European broadcasters and foundations, including ZDF-Arte, YLE-1, RSI, Tides Foundation and GDF Foundation. It premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2010 and was picked up by PBS documentary strand ‘POV’ as the lead film in the series’ 25th season.
As the film (pictured below) began a festival run, Fox found herself in a horrible bind. One of her European backers failed to raise US$100,000 in promised financing – money she’d already spent and, as the doc’s main producer, would have to pay out of pocket. Having sold distribution rights to all major territories, she turned to the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter as a last resort and raised more than $150,000.
Ahead of My Reincarnation‘s U.S. broadcast premiere on ‘POV,’ realscreen spoke with Fox from Amsterdam – where she is developing her first scripted feature – about the creative challenges in shooting a documentary over 20 years and mounting a crowdfunding campaign.
Why did Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche want to participate in a documentary?
He never said. It didn’t interfere with what I was doing for him, which was taking care of him, writing all his correspondence and booking his flights. Rinpoche is the kind of man that loves anything cutting edge and I think having a film person in his life was exciting and different. At that time, I bought him one of the first laptops and we would travel with the laptop and the camera and I think it was just he loves doing things that are new on the cutting edge.
He had me stay with his son Yeshi and his girlfriend when we were in Rome so I became very close to Yeshi and immediately found – it was common knowledge – that he was the reincarnation of this famous master and that Yeshi didn’t want anything to do with the legacy. Immediately, I started to film Yeshi and said to him right then: ‘I know what would make a good film. One day you’re gonna wake up and go back to Tibet and accept your reincarnation.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘Don’t hold your breath Jennifer. It’s never gonna happen.’
Then what happened?
I filmed both Yeshi and his father up until about 1994 but after those five years I just didn’t see a narrative forming because Yeshi was doing exactly what he said: he was renouncing everything. It’s only one part of a narrative to have a child that doesn’t want to be something. With Rinpoche, on the other hand, there was absolutely no dramatic conflict in his life. He has a very dramatic back story – an escape from Tibet – but I’m not an archival filmmaker. I couldn’t see a full story from it.
So, in 1994 I cut a trailer with Yeshi in it, but it was one note and I decided it was impossible and I put the footage aside after having filmed Rinpoche and Yeshi for five years.
So you shelved it?
Yeah, and I really thought, ‘I can’t do this.’
How did you feel about that?
Terrible! I was already shooting An American Love Story by then, which I started in 1992. I just rode with the horse that was going. I also felt quite strongly that it was impossible to tell a spiritual story. At least I couldn’t figure it out – it’s not to say somebody else couldn’t, but I’m a very narrative-driven filmmaker and I was looking for narrative.
Why did you eventually start filming again?
A broadcast channel approached me in 2000 – Dutch Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation executive producer Babeth M. Vanloo. She said, ‘look, I know you know Rinpoche Norbu. You’ve been very close to him. You have this footage. You have to make a film about it. You’re the only one who can do it. Nobody else can do it. Nobody else has access.’ I basically said no for over a year and she just kept coming at me saying ‘you’re the only one who can do it. He’s getting old. He’s gonna die soon. You can’t not do this.’
I picked up the camera again in 2002 – that’s that big time jump between the first act and the second act. I started filming Namkhai again and started traveling with him. Yeshi had become an IT executive. I filmed them on and off for another four years and still didn’t have a narrative but by that time I had to make a film because I’d accepted the Buddhists’ money. I attempted to edit something and failed in about 2006. We organized all the footage but in 2007 Yeshi wrote me that he was going back to Tibet. Suddenly we had a story.
I filmed for two years more until 2009, because we really needed more narrative of Yeshi. It really was a very difficult film in the sense that it wasn’t until 17, 18 years into the filming that I thought, ‘OK now we have a narrative.’
When you’re making a film over that period of time using different formats, how do you ensure you have a consistent stylistic approach?
I didn’t in the first unit because the early footage of Rinpoche and Yeshi was the first time I was shooting something myself. My language changed quite a bit by the second act – my visual style – but also the format changed quite a bit. It was Hi8 to DVCAM.
How did the visual style change?
In the first unit I was shooting for picture and I wasn’t used to shooting for audio. Beirut was shot on 16mm and this was the first thing I’d made since then. The language wasn’t as fluid. We didn’t have the coverage. The interviews drive the first act rather than the verité and there were less solid verité scenes, which you start to see in act two and act three. The format change didn’t hurt us because there is that 13-year time leap.
We did a lot of work in post-production in Zurich with supervisor Patrick Lindenmaier. He did a lot of fixing in the Hi8 and evening out the tones so that, technically, the film is not really jarring from unit to unit.
What are the primary creative challenges in making a film over this expanse of time? Did you look to any films that have been shot over several years for precedents?
I actually never talked with anyone about it. One thing I was quite concerned about was saving the Hi8 footage because back then they always said it had a shelf life of two or three years. We remastered everything on digital beta, even though I wasn’t doing anything with it at the time. I was afraid even as archive it would disintegrate. When we ended up going back to the original Hi8, it held up perfectly for nearly 20 years.
The bigger concern with something that is shot for 20 years is the amount of footage you’re dealing with. We had over 1,000 hours of footage in multiple languages and multiple formats so we did extensive logging. But the piece that I did prior to My Reincarnation – Fling: Confessions of Free Woman – had over 2,000 hours of footage, so I’m used to dealing with large amounts of footage.
At what point did ‘POV’ become involved or interested in the film?
In terms of American TV – and this is quite normal – we were turned down by every American foundation except for Hartley Film Foundation, which is a spiritual fund. You name it, they turned us down. ITVS turned us down of course. It is quite common in my experience that American television is the last one in. They’re the least risk-taking. To be fair to ‘POV,’ I never approached them until the film was finished because I wanted to put my best foot forward.
When I showed it to ['POV' executive director] Simon Kilmurry he said, ‘We want it. We love it.’ It was very quick. I have to say for this film ‘POV’ was my absolute ideal place. It’s a film about spirituality; it’s a father-son story. It’s perfect for public television. ‘POV’ is the gold mark in public independent documentary series. It was my absolute goal and ironically we got ‘POV’ even without having an American festival on board, so I was very pleased.
Why were you in particular so successful at running a Kickstarter campaign?
I was in a better position than most in that I have run several independent self-released theatrical campaigns and I’ve been fundraising for 30 years, which isn’t to say that meant I would succeed. I was scared out of my mind from the moment we thought of the campaign and launched it. I was literally up every night. I don’t want it to sound like I thought, ‘Oh gee I’ve got the ticket here.’ But I do know how to run a campaign.
The first weakness I have is being old so I put together a team that strengthened that weakness: I got a young, web-savvy team and we took it very seriously. I worked almost full-time as I was going around the world to festivals.
Did you target the Buddhist community?
Classic crowdfunding success [requires] a target audience and you can’t get more targeted than a specific lineage of Buddhism. We started with the students of Rinpoche and Yeshi and we built email lists. Those students already have a strong e-list around the world so we also tapped into that. We added other Buddhist organizations and kept building our list, but we started out in not a bad position, because from Flying we had a 9,000-strong email list of people who were very dedicated to my work. Of course we lost some because it was a list interested in women, but we rebuilt that; it went down to 6,000 and we built it back up to 12,000.
I had 5,000 followers on Facebook and we built up the My Reincarnation page to 8,000 and we built up our Twitter fans. We’re almost a textbook case of targeting key markets, creating real information that people wanted to have and then giving something back for participating in the journey of a campaign.
What role will crowdfunding play in your work going forward?
It is a piece of a puzzle. It’s an excellent tool. Some people say it’s over, that it’s going to burn out but I don’t think it will because when used properly you’re always targeting a unique audience that wants very deeply what you’re offering. With good target audiences I think crowdfunding will survive as a piece of a puzzle. In some films it could be the whole puzzle. In my case, it was maybe about a tenth of the puzzle, maybe a little less. We had a very expensive project and extensive post-production.
It’s is not for every film. I’m doing a film now and the actual story is not something I can make public so it’s not suited to crowdfunding obviously. I could see using it again but if I did, I would be just as scared and just as serious about it.
My Reincarnation airs on Thursday, June 21 at 10 p.m. on ‘POV’ on PBS (check local listings) and will stream for free on POV.org as of tomorrow (June 22). Check out the trailer for the film below: