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.”
And it does that brilliantly, condensing 6 12-hour work days into a “concert film” that gives viewers a glimpse at Robbins’s interventions, admonitions, and, yes (at times) manipulations. The film is honest about the use of music and mass psychology to sway the seminar members into a more pliable state. On day one, Robbins practically pleads with the audience to be loud and keep their “energy” up. When he instructs one woman seeking guidance to pull out her phone and break up with her boyfriend on the spot, Robbins co-opts the crowd when she hesitates. Berlinger’s camera periodically cuts to the sound board technician to remind us that Date with Destiny is a production as well as a workshop. The cameras also take us to morning meetings where Robbins appears to have volunteers culling from share-sessions to give him a better idea of who to choose to interact with one-on-one.
But if there is plenty of ammunition in the film for the skeptics to remain skeptical, there is undeniable power and authenticity in the witnesses of the program participants. A woman who responds to Robbins’s request for those who are suicidal to stand shares that she sold all her furniture to scrape together the money to come to the conference. Another young woman reconnects with her estranged father. A couple finds new levels of intimacy after Robbins goads the man into roaring like a lion. When people are thirsty, they don’t have to be told that water is good news.
We live an increasingly skeptical and suspicious culture. Robbins’s language—he often uses “taboo words” to cut to people’s core—and his lack of specific, religious references may leave some Christian viewers worried about the sorts of psychological and emotional power one person can hold over another. Yet that is precisely why Christians should take notice. Turn down the volume in places, especially in a “close-your-eyes” visualization session, and the structure and techniques look a lot like church. Eventually the film may present thoughtful Christians with uncomfortable but important questions. Is church something more than technique? Can discerning Christians still tell the difference between the moving of the Spirit and the manipulations of mass psychology? Do hurting people really care which it is? If false prophets are known by their fruits, does the testimony of those who have been helped by Robbins ultimately count for more than the labels we use to describe his work? What is the hurting world around us not getting from churches, Christian neighbors, or family that makes a $5,000 seminar seem like their last, best chance for healing?
Berlinger says that Robbins, when he finally relented and allowed the documentary to be filmed, had two conditions. He could “pull the plug” at any time during the seminar if the cameras were too intrusive, and he insisted that the documentary follow up with seminar participants a year later. (Berlinger said he would have done the latter regardless.) There were no restrictions on where or what he could film, and Robbins had no editorial control over the final cut of the film.
Tony Robbins: I am Not Your Guru premieres July 15 on Netflix, which produced the documentary. When I asked the Academy Award-nominated director how he felt about evolving distribution models, he said that Netflix was an ideal partner for his newest film. Not only does its subscriber base dwarf a typical documentary’s theatrical numbers, it allows viewers opportunities to pause and replay key scenes should they want to try to participate vicariously in Robbins’s seminar.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an associate professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.