Judge William Lee wrote this review in the nude, but you probably didn't need to know that.
Enlightenment guaranteed. Clothing optional.
The Workshop adds a revealing twist to the on-camera therapy documentary. With his camcorder ready, English photographer Jamie Morgan attends a 10-day self-help retreat in the woods somewhere near San Francisco. Under the guidance of spiritual leader Paul Lowe, participants try to discover their inner truth. This involves group interaction in the nude. However, with plenty of exposed skin and naked emotions on display, Jamie's novice filmmaking makes the experience a cold one for viewers.
There are about 50 or more people attending the workshop and Jamie interviews a good portion of them during the movie though he concentrates on four people who are also from the UK. Ryan and Maddy are a dating couple—Ryan has attended the workshop multiple times. Laurel is married and she's here with her single friend, Brian. Jamie has come as a participant but at first he seems preoccupied with his documentary duties so he mostly observes the others at the start. Eventually the effect of the workshop on his own emotions is recorded as he becomes more active in the sessions.
The mood of a video diary is prevalent due to the many instances of Jamie speaking directly to the camera in extreme close up. Being his own director-photographer-performer all at the same time limits his ability to tell the story. When he has time to properly compose his subjects, he's too detached from the group; and when he's participating in the sessions, we have a very limited view of what's happening. Jamie stops short of recording any actual sex, but he is granted great liberty to film by the cooperative participants and their very relaxed attitude about nudity quickly makes it a non-issue.
What we learn about Paul Lowe's teachings is limited. We hear excerpts of his lectures but it sounds like standard New Age profundities—I'm sure his speeches are much more effective in the proper setting and context. If Jamie's camera doesn't convey the power of Paul's words, it does witness the results. It's quite amazing how quickly participants' comfort levels adjust once everyone is naked. Daily meditation sessions are followed by interactive exercises. Outside of the classes, they continue to mingle au naturel. It isn't long before casual sex becomes a regular activity and orgies are encouraged. "You are not monogamous," Paul tells them.
The open sexual encounters are a step toward the next phase of the workshop. When jealousy and guilt rear their ugly heads, Paul tells the participants that these are "caveman emotions" that they have to work past. Those with spouses or significant others back in the real world, Jamie included, risk losing their partners when they confess their sexual adventures to them.
It's unclear what's "wrong" with any of these people before they start the Workshop, aside from their desire to fill an unnamed something that is missing from their lives. That they let go of their sexual inhibitions and confront their emotions is sure to make them stronger when they return to their lives. However, if Paul's teachings are about more than sexual freedom, that message doesn't come across in this film.
The technical presentation is about what you'd expect from a handheld, consumer-quality camcorder—that's to say, slightly mediocre. Colors are slightly drained and the image is soft. Frequently, the camera's focus is not locked on to the person in the foreground. The audio quality of the interviews is also restricted by the technology, sounding a bit flat tonally. You can make out the dialogue most of the time and a few scenes have permanent subtitles when the audio quality really suffers. The earnest underscore music, mixed in stereo, tries to do too much and is distracting as a result.
Despite the technical shortcomings and the unpolished filmmaking, The Workshop manages to be an interesting documentary. I was resistant to watch someone's video diary of his therapy, but I was quickly hooked by the personal dramas that were unfolding. I'm not a fan of most reality television shows but I can't deny that it is fascinating to watch people tear down their social barriers and put themselves through an emotional roller coaster. Even if it isn't an accurate depiction of the Paul Lowe experience, the movie works as a daring and honest glimpse of people searching for a higher personal truth.
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