The world premiere of this documentary was as compelling as it was frustrating. Like our fantasies of youth, where hope springs eternal and anything is possible, the film is at turns charming and naïve in equal measure.
Jamie Morgan, a successful British photographer for magazines such as The Face and bands like Culture Club has been around the contemporary trendy UK scene for quite some time. He even had a short stab at pop music himself. So Jamie heads off to LA to experience and document a ten day retreat-like workshop where guru Paul Lowe, a Big Brother version of Timothy Leary with a dose of Rajneesh thrown in, kicks off by entreating his pupils to 'find out who we are...meet people, touch...a little pressure...take your clothes off.' Ah, there's the rub.
Of course it is highly entertaining watching strangers begin to interact when they feel embarrassed and uncomfortable and to note the sociological aspects of how we regard sexuality, modesty, appropriate behaviour and personal space. It is humorously depicted, with Jamie telling a woman 'I can feel your softness' without actually touching her and she in turn replies 'I feel a tingling in my vagina'.
In addition to Jamie and Paul, the film follows four other characters, Laurel, Ryan, Maddy and Brian. Through the attempts to navigate their conditioning in the areas of acceptance, jealousy, power, anger and other forms of sexual energy these characters are shown in different situations as the workshop progresses. Without giving the game away, it felt as though the film always promised much more than it actually delivered.
Morgan quotes Socrates early on, declaring 'The unexamined life is not worth living' and yet it seems as though we have all been here before. Perhaps however, the first time round, in the Sixties, it was edgy and transformative and pushing against the norms and conventions of a post-war society still enmeshed in conservative values. These days however, where lifestyles have replaced the monogamous nuclear family as the dominant reality of the western world, it seems slightly unbelievable when Maddy says about challenging monogamy 'I don't think I've ever thought about it.'
Throughout the film Lowe is pictured making all sorts of declarations that are fairly pedestrian and banal, but picturing him full-faced to the screen makes them somewhat comical. Like all New Agers, he prefers the platitudes and rhetorical questions. 'Who are you?' he demands from his gooey-eyed subjects. 'You are you...' he then declares triumphantly.
Mmm, this is transformative stuff indeed. One of the saddest things these days it seems, that has accompanied the end of big ideas around the world and competing visions of society, is the ubiquitous nature of gurus. So, we have parenting gurus and sex adviser gurus, alternative health and wealth gurus and becoming rich and famous gurus (it's all about the creative visualisation stupid, you are what you think you are). We are continually told that we need third party help and advice and intervention in so many areas of our lives - as though we could not manage life without them. While this is often presented as liberating, the reverse is true - the more we are told we need lifestyle coaches, the less we are taking the initiative and acting as autonomous adults who can make - and change the world ourselves.
The Workshop uses some very basic techniques that encourage us to feel as though we are participating - and at one point Jamie is in his tent and we are almost reminded of the fear of The Blair Witch Project. As with that film though, often, upon reflection, the film seems somewhat artificial.
There is no doubt that the people who attended all have worthwhile aspirations. The sense in which the participants all felt like there is more to life and that they can be challenged are indeed commendable and what makes us aim for better things. However, what is dressed up as an alternative way of looking at the world and ourselves, may end up being somewhat parochial and narrow minded. So, while Maddy tells us that 'I don't know what I'm looking for...but I'm not going to find is stuck in an office...' and Laurel says that after five years of marriage 'this is not the point,' of life, what we see is a 'Noughties' version of The Ice Storm with nicer surroundings. For some time 'swinging' has been growing in popularity too, but it doesn't seem to alter much of the alienation and sense of isolation so many people experience in our world today.
Sure, people explore things in their 'inner world' a little - but one can't help feeling that this is as the outer world seems to be out of bounds for experimental large scale ideas that can change it. In the end, The Workshop seems more like a summer camp for lost souls that unlike in the title, 'for mature audiences only' are perhaps not that mature themselves.
The Workshop is a Buena Onda and Surreal Film production with Lumina Films.