Transformation: The Life and Legacy of Werner Erhard
Universal // Unrated // $27.98 // May 27, 2008
Review by Chris Neilson | posted May 8, 2008
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You may not have heard of Werner Erhard, but you're probably familiar with some of the jargon he popularized: transformation, empowerment, breakthrough, make a difference, and get off it. Erhard was a hugely influential figure in America in the 1970s and 1980s, but he left the United States under a cloud of controversy in 1991 and has largely been forgotten in the ensuing years. Two-time Emmy award-winning documentary producer Robyn Symon wrote, directed and edited Transformation: The Life and Legacy of Werner Erhard. The documentary reexamines Erhard's rise to prominence and the ensuing controversy, and it provides an update on what he's been doing since.

Erhard seemed to burst onto the public stage in 1971 when he began offering 60-hour seminars in San Fransisco hotel ballrooms to groups of 250 people seeking to improve the psychological and emotional quality of their lives. Erhard's "est" training incorporated a hodgepodge of psychotherapeutic, philosophical, New Age and Zen Buddhist techniques and teachings in a novel way. The est training was described as life altering by a large number of course graduates.

The media created a buzz around est training, and thereby encouraged its dramatic growth and increasing prominence. More than half a million Americans attended an est seminar during Erhard's years of oversight. Seminar graduates included John Denver, Yoko Ono, Diana Ross, and Dr. Phil. As the popularity of est training grew though, Erhard was increasingly dogged by negative press. A number of critics alleged that Erhard's methods were abusive and demeaning, re-victimized people, especially women who'd suffered sexual abuse, and constituted brainwashing. Erhard and est training were ridiculed in the 1978 movie Semi-Tough starring Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristoferson.

More disturbing for Erhard were investigations by journalists into his prior marriage and his relationship with his children, culminating in a 1991 exposť on the television program 60 Minutes in which one of Erhard's daughters claimed he'd sexually molested her. Although she later recanted the story and attributed it to a writer that offered her a lot of money to fabricate the story, a rattled Erhard sold his business to his employees and left the United States shortly after the 60 Minutes exposť aired. Until agreeing to participate in this documentary, he has largely operated beneath the notice of the American popular media ever since.

Transformation can roughly be divided into four foci: (1) the biography of Erhard prior to leaving the United States with special focus on the development and teaching of the est training told through archival footage and interviews with former colleagues, employees, and students; (2) contemporary opinion, largely positive, of experts in the fields of journalism, psychology, social work, philosophy, and new age spirituality about the origins and impact of est training; (3) interviews with Erhard and his family; and (4) footage of his recent work which includes promoting peace in Ireland through est-based encounter groups, seminars in Japan, and management consulting.

Overall, Symon does a great job of concisely presenting a large amount of information in a tight 77 minutes. Where Transformation falls short is in (1) presenting excerpts of archival footage of est training divorced of context which serves to sensationalize the material; (2) not sufficiently capturing the dramatic sense of possibility that surrounded est training at its height for transforming education, social work, and the penal system; and, (3) not exploring more deeply the circumstances surrounding the allegations of sexual abuse and the subsequent recanting by his daughter and the details of her lawsuit against a writer she claims enticed her false statement. Despite these drawbacks, Transformation is an engrossing biography well worth seeing.

This review is based on a screener copy. The commercial release may vary considerably. If Universal Studios provides a final commercial release for review, these specs will be updated accordingly.

The Video:
Transformation has an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for widescreen. The archival material is of varying qualities, while the newly-shot footage is generally good but occasionally the footage goes soft or suffers from aliasing.

The Audio:
The 2.0 stereo mix is adequate with minimal dropout and distortion. There are no subtitles available on this release.

The Extras:
Although the only extra on the screener copy was a theatrical trailer for Transformation that plays immediately before the main feature, the commercial release should include additional interviews and more archival footage of the est seminars.

Final Thoughts:
Though Transformation: The Life and Legacy of Werner Erhard would have benefited from a more detailed examination of particular aspects of Werner Erhard's story, overall this is a fine film. Filmmaker Robyn Symon packs a great deal into this 77-minute biography of an incredibly interesting character. Transformation: The Life and Legacy of Werner Erhard is recommended viewing.

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