In many ways Joe Berlinger’s latest film, I’m Not Your Guru, is a departure from his more celebrated, hard-hitting investigatory work. Yet Oscar-nominated Berlinger’s documentaries have always found ways of exploring human emotion and remarkable events with a keen eye, not shying away from being provocative when required while sympathetic when warranted. Like his Some Kind of Monster (co-directed with the late Bruce Sinofsky), this work about a Tony Robbins event delves into psychic pain through therapy, and like his breakthrough, Paradise Lost there’s powerful craft at work in presenting a large event in a coherent, concise presentation.
For some, this film will provide a less cynical view about what transpires at a Tony Robbins event than they may expect, while others will find deeper insight into this kind of phenomenon. We spoke by phone about the film prior I’m Not Your Guru’s showcase presentation at Hot Docs. —Jason Gorber
JG/POV: Jason Gorber for POV
JB: Joe Berlinger
JG/POV: The film began when you were dragged to one of Tony Robbins’ events. How did that transpire?
JB: I met Tony Robbins socially in 2012. He was a fan of my Metallica film and we had a really engaging conversation. I wasn’t aware of his seminars but I knew he had DVDs and is a very charismatic guy. I think he sensed that I had some issues going on in my life, which I feel I did.
If it was anybody else I would have just said no [about going to one of his sessions] because I’m sceptical about these things. There was something about Tony and my meeting with him that just made me feel like I should check it out.
On the first break, on the first day, I ran out of the room with all of my red flags going off. It was obviously touching something deep in me. I called my wife and said I’ve got to get the hell out of here. She said to give it at least another 24 hours.
JG/POV: Did she have any experience with doing something like a Tony Robbins seminar, or perhaps has a religious background?
JB: Absolutely not. In fact, she was also sceptical of Tony and the whole thing until she saw my movie. She was just coming at it from a more practical standpoint. She didn’t think it was a solution, but before you make the decision to pull the plug and leave after not even a day, give it another day.
JG/POV: So you stayed, and things began to change for you.
JB: I’m an observer in life, not a participant. That’s why I’m a documentarian who looks through a camera. I’m not a touchy-feely person; I’m not a seminar person. What I think makes this film so interesting is I’m usually sceptical about institutions. I’ve looked at the dark side of things, so for all of those reasons, you would not think that I would enjoy something like this.
On the second day, there was this very moving, profound experience. I [was helped to] to remember something and I found it profoundly moving and liberating. I opened my eyes and I was flooded in tears, crying in a way that I can’t remember.
JG/POV: Yet your immediate reaction wasn’t, ‘hey, I could make a movie about this’?
JB: My immediate reaction was, ‘hmm, I’m glad my wife told me to stick it out.’ My massive walls of resistance came down and I stuck it out for the six days, and I found it to be both liberating and fascinating. That there was a spirit in that room, which was hard to describe. There were a lot of different personality types from different worlds, none of whom I would naturally click with socially under other circumstances. Yet I found this amazing camaraderie, this support for strangers, this shedding of social barriers and selfishness.
I just felt there’s something to this, which work as a film. The interventions [felt] incredibly rich and cinematic.
JG/POV: How did Robbins react to the idea of being in one of your docs?
JB: He was appreciative of the idea of a film but also reluctant. It took me two years to convince him to do it. He was concerned that the documentary crew would interfere with the experience of the attendees, even though he has also has cameras shooting the event. He was also concerned about how you could take a 72-hour, content rich seminar and condense it and capture its essence. It’s very important to him that people not misperceive that these interventions as a quick fix—-like boom, five minutes and you’re done. Robbins actually takes people through quite an arc, and he was concerned that the editing process would compromise that and not actually convey its authenticity.
JG/POV: Did you share any of those concerns?
JB: No. I felt that this was something that was inherently cinematic. I told him what I believe, which is any documentary; any capturing of a non-fiction event, is a hyper-realistic condensation of reality that hopefully reveals an emotional truth. It’s never the actual literal truth of an event. In Paradise Lost, five weeks of a murder trial is condensed to about an hour of screen time.
What you hope, what you’re trusting the filmmaker to do, is to capture the emotional truth of the situation. So I convinced Robbins of that argument but he still was concerned about the film getting in the way of the experience of his attendees. After two years of going back and forth on issues of access, I just said, ‘Look, I will take the risk. I’ll bring a crew and the moment you feel it’s intrusive and you want to shut it down, let me know. That’s the risk I’m taking.
In the end, he didn’t tell me to stop and obviously didn’t shut it down.
JG/POV: Is there anything that he prevented you from filming?
JB: Nothing. In fact, my favourite scene in the film, after the Dawn intervention [a key emotional sequence in the film—POV], he’s backstage, in tears and processing what he just went through. He has some very nice security people but that was the one time they wouldn’t let me into the room. I just pushed through them and said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m going in there.’
In the end the film is sympathetic to the events in the room.
This is not a critique of Tony Robbins. This is not a critique of his technique or a compare and contrast to other modalities. I think that’s what’s throwing off some people who see it. I wanted to do a concert film, but a concert of emotion. Some people have criticized the film as not being objective, but I think it’s very objective in the sense that I did a really great job of capturing the experience of being in that room. Unless somebody wants to be in that room and tell me I didn’t capture exactly what it’s like then they have no right to tell me if the film is objective or not objective. I’m taking you into that room and just letting you experience it. If a concert film is an experience of the musicianship without critiquing it, then this, too, is dropping you into a world and letting you experience it.
JG/POV: One is still free to evaluate the circumstances they’re seeing on screen.
JB: 20% of the people who saw Paradise Lost walked out and said Damian was guilty because he’s so weird. That precisely mirrors the kind of subjective decisions that people make in real life. The filmmaker is not telling you what to think. People who love Tony and have been to the seminar have complimented me repeatedly about how I captured exactly what it’s like to be in that room.
Where I cross the line from pure Frederick Wiseman or Maysles brothers’ vérité immersion is that there is behind-the -scenes stuff and a smattering of questions from me. I wanted to provide some basic contextualisation for understanding the event. I think most of the people who go to Robbins’ event have some basic knowledge of who Tony is and what his philosophy is about.
I acknowledge that I’ve augmented reality a little bit by providing the backstage texture, but people confuse that as well. Why aren’t I drilling deeper into his dark side? I’m not looking for a dark side, nor is that the point of the film.
JG/POV: How do you think this film would have been different if you’d simply shot Tony Robbins but had never attended his event?
JB: That’s a good question. I don’t think I would have wanted to make the film.
I encountered a life experience, which I found fascinating and made me think differently. Honestly, my motivation was to share that with people. I know that sounds Pollyanna-ish and hard to believe from the guy who has made the dark films that I’ve made, but all of my films are about the search for truth in what it means to be human. I think this film is not as different from my other work as one might think. It’s very much a cousin of the Metallica film.
I think there’s a common thread throughout all of my films. I like to blow up stereotypes, like taking the icons of metal, the epitome of male testosterone and showing them as regular people. Brother’s Keeper is all about stereotypes. Paradise Lost explodes the stereotype that if you listen to heavy metal music and wear black, that means you’re a baby killer.
JG/POV: So what did you explode here?
JB: As Taylor Swift said so eloquently, the haters are gonna hate, no matter what. Those people will never be satisfied. The worst stereotypes about self-help and people like Tony Robbins will be confirmed by this movie for the haters. But the wide swath of people in the middle, just like with the Metallica film, will see that there is a lot of good to be taken from examining the direction of your life. Somebody like Tony Robbins is committed to helping people, and if you’re open to it, there’s some good that can come out of it.
There have not been a lot of great role models in the area of self-help. People have a lot of negative baggage associated with this kind of thing. I’m hoping a lot of people will go in to this film with scepticism, just as I went into the event with scepticism, but will have an open mind. If people spend two hours thinking about the direction of their own lives and can relate to the stories they see on screen, to me that’s a success.
I don’t want people to immediately sign up for a Tony Robbins seminar. But the stereotype I think I’m exploding is the negative preconceptions that people bring towards this type of activity. I actually have come to believe that if people were more connected to their fellow human beings, if we all felt more centred and fulfilled in our lives, maybe we would be pointing our cameras at a lot less social ills.
Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru screens:
-Sunday, May 8 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema at 6:00 PM (Scotiabank Big Ideas screening)
-Sunday, May 8 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema at 9:30 PM
Please visit the POV Hot Docs hub for more coverage on this year’s festival.
Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8. Visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information.