The filmmaker behind the Netflix documentary “I Am Not Your Guru,” about performance coach Tony Robbins, used to be a total sceptic who believed that Robbins was all smoke and mirrors.
When Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger casually met Tony Robbins at an event in 2012, his knowledge of Robbins was limited to commercials and book displays, but the two hit it off. Berlinger told Business Insider that he was going through a rough time in his life and figured Robbins picked up on it, because Robbins invited him to one of his six-day-long “Date with Destiny” events.
Berlinger accepted the invitation largely to be polite, but he was wary. “If I had met you in 2012, I would have told you I’m not a seminar guy, I’m not a self-help guy … and I’m a workaholic who barely takes six hours out of his life to take a vacation, let alone six days.”
He blocked off six days in his calendar, flew to California, and drove a rental car to Palm Springs, thinking the entire time, “Why am I doing this?”
“So here I was, ready to do it, and it started, and after the first two hours, on the very first break, I fled for the exit doors,” Berlinger said. “Just all my red flags were going off.” Robbins’ rock star entrance, the cheering and dancing crowd, the instruction to start sharing your innermost feelings with the stranger next to you — all within the first 20 minutes of the event — was too much for Berlinger to handle. He got on the phone with his wife, who convinced him to calm down and give it a chance, at least for two full days.
The next day Berlinger participated in a 40-minute exercise where all 2,500 audience members closed their eyes and focused on their earliest memories, guided by Robbins. Berlinger said that when he opened his eyes, he found himself sobbing in a way he hadn’t in years.
“I felt this weight — it wasn’t like the heavens parted and all of a sudden my life is just perfect, I just felt lighter,” he said. “And I said to myself, ‘Wow, if something can make me feel this way even for a moment, I owe it to myself to give this a shot.'” And when he finished, he pitched Robbins on the idea of doing a concert-style film on the Date with Destiny event.
After a couple of years of off-and-on negotiation, Robbins and Berlinger reached a deal: Berlinger and his crew could have full access for the event and if Robbins felt it was interfering in a negative way he would pull the plug but reimburse Berlinger and the crew for the time they had spent; if Robbins allowed the shoot to last all six days, then Berlinger would follow up a year after the event with each of the audience members he interviewed to see if the seminar was effective, and incorporate those updates into the final product.
The biggest critique of “I Am Not Your Guru” is that it doesn’t probe or explore enough, or put Robbins under enough critical scrutiny. Berlinger, known for his critically acclaimed trilogy “Paradise Lost,” about the trials around a brutal murder, said he intentionally wanted to make a positive film.
The award-winning documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, also known for his cynicism, surprised Berlinger by reaching out to him and telling him that he admired his courage for going forward with an uplifting project he believed in, even though he predicted critics would harshly judge his decision to do so.
Berlinger said that he is comfortable with his decision because of a moment during filming when he pushed past Robbins’ handlers and found him backstage in tears after an especially emotional, two-hour discussion with one of his audience members, which is documented in the film (but condensed to 10 minutes).
“That’s when I felt total authenticity and the level and the dedication and the commitment and that this is a mission for him,” Berlinger said.
He said he wants people to watch his film and judge Robbins for themselves, because even though he’s unapologetic about his own opinion, his footage is enough to draw a conclusion about Robbins, whatever that is. Robbins added, “It’s real people, raw, happening in real time.”
You can watch the trailer for “I Am Not Your Guru” below.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Robbins partially financed the film. Robbins and Berlinger agreed before filming began that if Robbins felt Berlinger and his crew’s shoot detracted from his audience members’ experience, then the shoot could end early and Robbins would reimburse Berlinger and his team for the time they spent.
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