Award-winning social documentarian Joe Berlinger seems an unlikely storyteller to present life coach Tony Robbins’ “Date with Destiny” seminar to the world at large. Introducing Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru (2016) at its SXSW premiere ahead of the July 15 Netflix release, Berlinger said that he is known for making “feel bad” movies, and this is a “feel good” movie.
So what was it about Tony that inspired Berlinger to make this upbeat, straightforward film about a life coach’s session of six marathon days with 2,500 people who’ve flown in from 70 countries to get inspired? At SXSW, Berlinger told me he met Tony socially several years ago. “I think he sensed when we were having a conversation that I was having some issues in my life, so he invited me to Date with Destiny,” Berlinger said. “I am not a seminar guy.” An investigator of social ills, Berlinger attended Robbins’ event in 2012 “with extreme skepticism,” a default attitude he deems essential for anyone who makes the kind of documentaries he does.
The first day set off all Berlinger’s red flags, due to the frequent hugging and sharing among strangers. Berlinger called his wife and asked, “How do I get the hell out of here?” But she encouraged him to give it one more day. On the second day, the filmmaker had a transformative experience. “He did that guided memory exercise where he challenges you to go back to your earliest memory of childhood, and a lot of the issues I was dealing with were childhood-related,” Berlinger said. “I challenged myself to go deep into my memory, and I listened to his guided memory exercise… After this 40 minute period, I opened my eyes and I was bawling.”
Berlinger spent the next two years “chasing him to do the film.” Robbins was concerned that the film would interfere with the attendees' experience and that condensing 72 hours into two would lose the essence of the experience. Finally, after Belinger promised that Robbins could pull the plug at any time, Robbins agreed.
Berlinger further explained to me why he prefaced the SXSW premiere with the announcement that the “feel good” movie was a departure from his most-known works. “I am a guy who has made some really tough, social issue films about prosecutorial misconduct in the West Memphis Three case; wrongful convictions; I have done a whole TV series on abuse in the criminal and justice system; pollution in the Amazon in crude; corporate malfeasance,” he said. “I didn’t want people to be wondering where the shoe was going to drop while the film was unfolding.”
Because Tony Robbins: I am Not Your Guru is a “very experiential film,” Berlinger likens it “to a concert film —a concert of human emotion.” What people feel about the film is up to them, but Berlinger wants the audience to be absorbed in the experience, not to expect some kind of exposé or hidden agenda due to “the hard edge of my reputation.”
Conversely, that reputation and his natural skepticism also make Berlinger the right person to tell the story of Robbins’ work. Because Berlinger is not easily convinced, he stands a higher chance of reaching more people who are not pre-disposed to being won over by a self-help philosophy. As a filmmaker, Berlinger is less interested in reaching Robbins’ fans, who will love it no matter what, or the ultra-cynical, who will never consider its ideas. “The haters are going to hate” he jokes, quoting Taylor Swift. “And the lovers are going to love. It’s the broad swath of people in the middle who aren’t really sure what they think who, I think, could get something out of… spending two hours with this film.”
Berlinger and Robbins at the SXSW Premiere
Berlinger added, “Documentaries over the last ten years or so have become these aggressive tools for pointing out social ills. And that’s good. I’m part of that movement, and a lot of the social justice reporting or investigative reporting that used to be the domain of print journalism and newspaper, because of the Internet, there has been a gutting of the investigative journalism. So documentarians have stepped into the void and do a lot of that reporting. So I’m not making fun of it, but in some ways it’s become kind of a cliché that a documentary is a finger-wagging lecture about the latest corporate abuser, polluter, corrupt government official, campus rape. All of these things are important to talk about, but I needed to take a break from that.”
Instead, this time, he wanted to give people two hours to think about the direction of their own lives. “As silly as this sounds, there was such a spirit in that room of 2500 strangers from 70 countries really caring and supporting each other in a way that I thought was incredibly unique, that I have never seen before,” he said. “I think if more of us spent more time connecting to our core and remembering who we are and achieving the best out of life and caring for one another and being interconnected with one another, instead of screaming at each other,” then we might not have so many problems as a society.
“We are such a divisive country,” Berlinger said. “Just look at Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders: they’re both popular because people are angry. Both sides are just yelling at each other, and there’s no compromise. I’m not saying that Tony Robbins or this method or my film is here to save the world, by any stretch of the imagination, but if people felt more at ease with who they were, more of in control of who they were, more fulfilled in what they do in life, more connected to their fellow human being, maybe there would be less social ills in the world for documentarians to point their cameras at. So as lofty and as pollyannaish as that sounds, that was my goal with this film.”
According to Berlinger, Robbins doesn’t have some magic answer or quick fix—he’s just really good at talking to people and boiling complicated ideas down to their essence. “I think he is an amazing communicator,” Berlinger said. “He also is quite adept at taking complex ideas from different philosophies, pulling out their essence, and communicating that to people in a way that’s very powerful. He’s a gifted speaker, obviously. He’s very charismatic, and I think that with the experiences of his youth, with the kind of mother he had and whatever circumstances led him to be who he is, he has an incredible ability to get to the heart of the matter. And I have seen it time and time again.”
Still, people shouldn’t look to Tony as some kind of (as the title reminds us) guru. The real trick is making changes last through sustained self-motivation. “That’s one of those meanings of the title, 'I Am Not Your Guru,' to me, is that Tony can give you the tools, but at the end of the day it has to come from you. The desire to breakthrough and change your life has to come from you… You can have an insight about your life, and an insight is momentary, but in order to make that insight last, you need to keep working on yourself. That’s why Tony is not the answer. He can provide you with the tools, and the answer has to come from you.”
Tony Robbins: I am Not Your Guru (2016)
In the film, Robbins also says, "I can’t fix you because you're not broken.” He emphasizes that we shouldn’t think the goal is to have no problems — we should see our problems as opportunity. “That’s the whole ball game: seeing your life as a series of experiences that have made you who you are today,” Berlinger said. “I had a certain kind of childhood that has made me want to dedicate my life to discovering the truth. Had I not had the childhood I had, I would not be the filmmaker I am today. I’m pretty proud of what I have been able to achieve and very happy with what I do for a living. And that directly came from negative experiences, and so, it’s all how you interpret things. That’s what Tony’s great gift has been to me is allowing me to reframe the experiences of my life so I see them as a positive instead of a negative.” Likewise, in the first intervention shown in the film, Robbins talks about “blaming people effectively — if you're gonna people for all the bad in your life, you've got to blame them for the good,” Berlinger paraphrased.
The hardest part of the process, for Berlinger, was the editing. “The challenging part of the film is it does not have a traditional dramatic structure,” he said. “I felt like each day had to be a character.” Berlinger also makes the bold editing choice to stay centered on the event, instead of including more biographical detail about Robbins or Berlinger’s own seminar experience. “It was a process of whittling away and realizing it’s just those 6 days,” he said. “It's what’s happening in that room. Because I wanted to make people feel like they’re actually in that room, which is not an easy thing to do because film is two-dimensional and a seminar is three-dimensional.”
Berlinger felt gratified at the SXSW premiere that he had succeeded in this goal: “The audience at Date with Destiny’s reactions were mirroring the audience in the movie theatre. People were laughing, crying. I think it worked.”
Berlinger feels he’s still the same filmmaker after Tony Robbins, but he has enjoyed a subtle shift in his attitude. “Every film is a great learning experience, and I think my methods haven’t really changed,” he said, “but I’m going to carry into the next making of a film the realization that focusing on positive things is as valid as focusing on negative things.”