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NEW YORK — Considering the cultural and social impact it had in the 1970s and early ’80s, the movement known as “est” has been surprisingly forgotten since its founder Werner Erhard dropped out of sight about 15 years ago or so. Filmmaker Robyn Symon explores the fascinating subject in her documentary “Transformation: The Life and Legacy of Werner Erhard,” which, in something of a journalistic coup, features his first public interview in more than a decade. The film recently received its theatrical premiere at New York’s Quad Cinema, where it did surprisingly strong business.
The training, named after the Latin word for “to be,” was created in 1971 by Erhard (born John Rosenberg). While hardly the typical image of a spiritual leader, Erhard became a defining guru of the human potential movement, and his weekendlong seminars, famously controversial for the emotional brutality of their approach and the physical deprivations supposedly imposed on the attendees, were hugely successful.
Eventually the trend cooled, and a highly critical “60 Minutes” segment alleging, among other things, that Erhard sexually abused his daughter (a charge she later recanted) resulted in his decision to abandon his empire and leave the country. Adapting his ideas for corporations, Erhard has continued his work, albeit flying under the radar. Seen here in recent segments shot in such places as England, France and Japan, he appears healthy and prosperous.
The film has its fascinating aspects, most notably the vintage footage of actual est seminars that demonstrate Erhard’s ferocity and insightfulness. Also included are clips from Michael Ritchie’s “Semi-Tough,” a Burt Reynolds comedy that amusingly spoofed the training.
But despite the inclusion of comments from figures ranging from Erhard’s family members to veterans of the est training to business associates, “Transformation” frustratingly fails to convey the full picture of Erhard and his creation. The information imparted feels skimpy and incomplete, with the result that for every question the film answers, more seem to be raised.
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