Joe Berlinger Reflects on Long Career & New Tony Robbins Doc
Joe Berlinger says his mind is boggled by the criticism of his new film, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. Some critics think Berlinger should have approached his subject with a more skeptical eye, but the award-winning veteran documentarian says that was never the point of the movie.
Filmmaker Joe Berlinger has made acclaimed documentaries such as Brother's Keeper and the Paradise Lost trilogy, which was a catalyst for much of the activism that led to the West Memphis Three being released from prison. But not everyone is in love with his newest film, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, which immerses the viewer in a week-long seminar led by the controversial motivational speaker. Some critics think Berlinger should have taken a more questioning approach. As for Berlinger, he admits he kind of drank the Robbins Kool-Aid himself but still, he finds the criticism baffling.
Photo: Director Joe Berlinger (far L) and Tony Robbins (far R) in production on Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. (Heather Wines/Netflix)
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Joe Berlinger is a veteran documentarian who has been through a lot in his 25-year career. So he has a lot to say on a lot of topics -- including his latest movie, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, now on Netflix, and much, much more.
When he joined us in the studio, we started by talking about the 1992 film that kicked off his career, Brother's Keeper.
Berlinger and his sometime collaborator, the late Bruce Sinofsky, were inspired to take a fly-on-the-wall approach for Brother's Keeper and other films thanks to their training with the Maysles brothers -- the famed documentarians behind films including Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens. But such cinéma vérité films are not cheap to make -- especially in the early 90's, when shooting and processing film cost much more than the digital technology used today. Berlinger and Sinofsky maxed out a dozen credit cards and Berlinger used money set aside for his honeymoon (with his fiance's permission!) to process the final footage. The film won the audience award at Sundance that year, but the filmmakers still ended up distributing the film themselves after it became apparent that distributors were not interested in buying something with such dark subject matter.
Berlinger faced another incredible struggle after the release of his documentary Crude. Multiple complicated and expensive legal battles left Berlinger wondering if he'd ever make a doc again. Just when he had about given up hope, the West Memphis Three were released from prison, thanks in large part to his Paradise Lost trilogy. Berlinger says seeing the falsely accused men freed gave him the will to go on.
His newest film is Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. It immerses the viewer in the motivational mogul's flagship seminar, Date with Destiny. Some 2,500 attendees pay $5000 each to spend a week during which Robbins works to whip them into better spiritual shape.
Though Berlinger doesn't say so in the film, he became interested in the subject matter after reluctantly attending a previous such seminar -- at Robbins's invitation -- and found himself having what he describes as a transformative experience. That aspect of the story has helped spark the criticism that has been leveled at the film that Berlinger did not take a truly objective look at his subject.
Berlinger says he believes this is actually one of the most objective films he's ever made, and that his intention was simply to share a positive experience in a cinéma vérité style, almost like a concert film. As for what to make of Robbins and his methods, Berlinger says, "You're free to think what you want," and hopes the film reflects that.