THe Boy Who Lived Before starred Cameron, who was only two when he started talking in detail about another place and another family that he had previously belonged to.
Documentaries all too often come with attitude. Last week, when Dominion Post film critic Graeme Tuckett said that one of the strengths of the film festival's My Kid Could Paint That was that it made you have to make up your own mind, I agreed with him.
It was refreshing to see a documentary actually doing what documentaries by definition are supposed to do.
If last night's documentary on Prime, The Boy Who Lived Before, had an attitude, it was one of respect. Its subject matter – reincarnation, in this case a small child who had memories of a previous life and of a place which he had never visited – was one guaranteed to get a cynic sneering. But all this documentary set out to do was to allow the audience to observe Cameron's story being checked out. It made for riveting – and touching – viewing.
Cameron was only two when he started talking in detail about another place and another family that he had previously belonged to. That other place was the island of Barra, off the west coast of Scotland, a place neither he nor his family had ever visited. He also spoke of a white house on the sand, watching planes land on the beach, a black and white dog, siblings, a mother who'd had her long hair cut short, and a father who had died because he didn't look both ways. Most two-year-olds don't suffer from nostalgia, but Cameron missed his "other mother" so much that sometimes he cried when his real mother picked him up from kindergarten. His memories, which he continued to have till he was five, when we met him, were completely consistent. He even knew his "other" father's name – Shane Robertson. He was a happy and loving little boy, but he yearned for his other life. Cameron was fortunate to have a marvellously understanding and compassionate mother. She did that very difficult thing – she kept an open mind. She also managed another even more difficult thing – she at least appeared unthreatened by his longing for his other family. She took a risk when she allowed a camera crew to accompany her on the search for Cameron's other family, but it was one that paid off.
Even the people Cameron's mother approached in her attempt to make sense out of the rationally impossible allowed her her dignity.
The first person she spoke to (on camera, anyway) was potentially the hardest – psychologist Chris French, also the editor of The Skeptic Magazine. Though he was careful not to mock, in lots of ways he stated the bleeding obvious: somehow – through TV perhaps? or a family friend? – Cameron had learnt about Barra and invented a world that he had inhabited.
At this point in our house we became a little restless and uneasy, recalling how our daughter, when aged two, had had the habit of waking three or so hours after having been put to bed. At playcentre one day this guileless toddler had displayed such a parentally-humiliating knowledge of the Ewing family and Southfork that I kick myself now for not having known about children who'd lived another life – I could have just explained away her knowledge by telling everyone that Sue- Ellen was her other mother.
Norma, however, could not think of an opportunity Cameron might have had to pick up such detailed information. Also it would have been easy enough to check whether any TV drama or documentary had been made which contained the details which were so entrenched in this small child's imagination.
So she took Cameron to see a child psychologist who confirmed that, like many children, Cameron had an imaginary world. There were significant differences though – most children who create a friend or a world know that it's their own creation. Cameron insisted his existed.
The third expert that Norma consulted was Dr Jim Tucker, an academic from the University of Virginia who – in a this could only happen in America sort of way – headed a department dedicated to scientifically investigating paranormal phenomena such as near-death experiences, ghosts and reincarnation. Tucker accompanied Norma and her two little boys to Barra.
If this had been fiction (a very similar idea was dealt with a couple of years back in Sea of Souls) it would have had to have had a resolution, and this documentary offered no amazing ending. What it did show – in an impressively unspooky sort of way – was that much of what Cameron remembered did exist. After a false start – there were very few people called Robertson on Barra – we were taken with Cameron to see the house he remembered, where several decades ago a family called Robertson had spent a couple of summers. Then we were taken to meet a woman who was a member of the family. She looked kindly, yet nervously, at Cameron. There'd been no Shane Robertson. There had, though, been several Jameses. There'd been a black and white dog. There'd been a big black car.
And there they left us. Like all other children who have had this experience – and there are thousands documented – as Cameron grew older the memories faded. Having seen the house that he had so vividly described, he became a happier, more settled child. It was terrifically interesting, and I anticipate many happy hours a-Googling. It was evidence of what a really good documentary should do – not tell you how to think, but encourage you to get your own brain ticking over.
Even though it goes against all my naturally pragmatic instincts, on the issue of reincarnation this documentary leaves my mind refreshingly open.