TONY ROBBINS – I AM NOT YOUR GURU directed by Joe Berlinger (USA, 2016)

doc-site-inpost2Why do people need personal trainers and life coaches?

In a gym, once you have been shown how to use the equipment safely you should, in theory, be able to organise your own workout. Instead, many like the reassurance of being monitored by an ‘expert’.

As it is with bodies, so it is with emotions.

We all know in our hearts, what diets, habits and relationships make us feel good. So why do we still crave for someone else to show us the way?

Low self-esteem and general lack of confidence make us look to others for help even though we all have the capacity to succeed in whatever we set out to achieve.

Tony Robbins is a self-made man who has built a personal fortune as a life coach for the rich and famous. This Netflix documentary purports to show how he would like to share his insights to all and sundry regardless of age, gender, social status or level of income. As the man might say himself: “Anyone who believes this, say AYE”!

There will be naysayers, and I openly admit to being one myself, but ,even so, I can see that this 2 metre tall, square-jawed giant of a man cuts an imposing figure who I wouldn’t want to argue with face to face.

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See me – feel me – say AYE!

Robbins matches his commanding physical presence with the gift of the gab and an inflated ego to give him real charisma. It is his perceived emotional strength that draws people to willingly part with $5,000 to attend what they hope will be a life changing ‘Date With Destiny’. These total immersion seminars promise to help you find the hero inside yourself and discover the real you – “Victory is near” is the teasing tagline.

It could be argued that anyone who can afford the hefty ticket price for such events is not struggling financially.This stands as compelling proof, should you need it, that money doesn’t buy you happiness.

The world is a fucked up place full of fucked up people but, if you believe what Robbins says, brutal honesty with yourself together with real strength of purpose can transform you from being one of life’s losers to one of an army of winners.

Director, Joe Berlinger was given free and unprecedented access to what goes on over the course of one of these six-day events at an exclusive beach-side resort in Dallas, Texas. We bear witness to a 2,500 strong audience of participants straining at the leash to confront their demons head on. It has the look and feel of an evangelical gathering where sinners flock En-Masse to find Jesus and be saved. Hallelujah!

The equally fired-up Robbins, however, offers more practical and broadly secular solutions. He boasts of being free of bullshit and there is plenty of evidence in this film to indicate that he’s as good as his word. He also shows that he advocates the principle that sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. He calls a father who raised a daughter to be his princess a “motherfucker” and berates a sensitive husband for lacking sufficient alpha male energy to satisfy his woman. Steely eye contact and a gruff voice are deployed to cut through the crap and put participants in a position where they cannot hide behind well-practiced defence mechanisms.

The most memorable ‘breakthrough’ comes with a 26 year-old young woman who sold all her furniture to attend the seminar. She is one of a number who freely admits to being suicidal and, as it turns out, she has good cause. She tearfully describes a horrendous upbringing among a group calling themselves ‘Soldiers of God’.

One of this cult’s guiding principles is that members must submit to have sex with others in the group from an early age and this includes instances of incest. The level of abuse she describes is so great, it makes you wonder how she has the strength to carry on and seek a means of escape. Robbins is visibly moved by her testimony and his sensitive handling of this most delicate of case studies shows how problems you might imagine could only be resolved in one-to-one sessions can also be ‘healed’ by being aired in a public arena.

Robbins’ power derives from a monumental and unshakable self belief yet this film portrait does what he chastises others for in that presents a one-sided and superficial presentation of what drives him.

Joe Berlinger is a director known for his hard-hitting documentaries exposing injustice but here he is clearly as in awe of his subject as the adoring crowd. It is as if Robbins had simply commissioned a two-hour publicity film. No attempt is made to dig deeper and look for weaknesses in this man’s impressive armour. Robbins talks about the trauma of having to look after his alcoholic mother but is allowed to get away with platitudes about how character forming this experience was.

It beggars belief that Robbins should have a 100% success rate with subjects at these seminars but if there were any failures or sceptics we never get to see or hear them. Berlinger likens the atmosphere to that of a rock concert and Robbins evidently has the force of character to rise to the occasion and use the positive energy to his advantage.

My concerns are that the techniques he uses are not a million miles away from unscrupulous TV preachers, faith-healers and politicians who present themselves as demigods and are skilled enough orators to manipulate crowds.

To my mind, it is a fundamental flaw of humankind that we look up to such figures
and are willing to trust in their words so completely. It is this weakness that allows despots and dictators to thrive.

Berlinger does us no favours by deliberately censoring any criticism and choosing not to show the human being behind the hype. Robbins may refuse to be labelled as a guru but there are plenty of signs in this shallow documentary to indicate that the director reveres him as if he were one.

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