At first glance, Joe Berlinger and Tony Robbins seem as strange a pairing of director and subject as anything this side of Zack Snyder and Superman.

Berlinger, a self-described “New York Jew” hardly comes across as the sort of person you would find in Robbins’s self-improvement seminar, much less the kind of director you would expect to chase a motivational speaker for two years in order to get permission to document one of his conferences.

Perhaps because his most famous documentary, Paradise Lost, might be called an exposé, Berlinger told me in an interview at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival that he wondered if early, snarky reviewers “expected me to take down Tony Robbins.” Berlinger was himself a skeptic when Robbins, a fan of the director’s Metallica documentary, invited him to be a guest at a Date with Destiny seminar in California. After the first day, he called his wife saying, “I gotta get out of here!” But by the end of the week the seminar had enabled Berlinger to have what Robbins usually calls a “breakthrough.” (Berlinger is reticent about the details, saying only that it had to do with a painful memory and it allowed him to have his first full cry in years.)

Ironically, the director’s initial skepticism made him an ideal witness to the power and effectiveness of the polarizing speaker. Even today he admits there are elements of Date with Destiny that made him uncomfortable: “I could [have done] with less music [...] and less group hugs.” As a result, I Am Not Your Guru seeks neither to defend nor debunk Robbins. In Berlinger’s own words, it seeks to be “immersive,” to “drop you into that world.” ...

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