One of the most talked about films at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, UK documentary The Workshop from first-time film-maker Jamie Morgan is a personal hand-held record of a ten-day workshop Morgan took with 'guru' Paul Lowe in northern California.
While hardly the most technically sophisticated film - it was all shot on Morgan's handheld DV camera - it is nonetheless an extraordinarily frank and thought-provoking sexual odyssey which, with the right exposure and a healthy pinch of salt, could be a zeitgeist, talking-point film along the lines of What The Bleep Do We Know or Shortbus.
Against a global cultural background which is still unwilling to discuss the role of sex and sexuality in our everyday lives and behaviour, The Workshop tears into the issue, unfettered by embarrassment, shame, or, for that matter, clothes since the characters spend most of the film in their birthday suits.
While there are amateurish elements and dubious omissions in the story-telling, the questioning intelligence of the chief protagonist Morgan and the naked bravado of all of the partipants in exploring Lowe's challenges make for riveting viewing.
If films with daring subjects like Zoo and The Lifestyle can score distribution around the world, then The Workshop certainly should, especially in the UK from where most of the key players originate, and the US, where this kind of New Age thinking is embraced by a large minority, if not in the US mainstream where discussion of sex is still the major taboo.
International sales success will depend on the social mores of each territory. The film includes orgies, erect penises and extensive nudity, so sales to countries with strict morality codes are unlikely.
Morgan is a 45 year-old London man with a successful career behind him as a photographer, video director and, for a short while, popstar. He even has a functional relationship with his girlfriend Sophie. But as he explains at the starts of the film, he has reached a mid-life crisis of sorts where he feels lost and rudderless.
So begins his trip to Paul Lowe's workshop in a wooded glade outside San Francisco. Lowe is a British ex-pat with long white hair and clear, charismatic voice who encourages his students to find themselves by stripping themselves of the conditions thrust on them by society.
Hence, the first thing they do is take off their clothes to remove the status those clothes might express. Second, they should reject monogamy, which he believes is an unnatural convention, and explore connections and sex with multiple partners.
We meet some of Morgan's companions on the workshop - Laurel (30) and Maddy (30), who are best friends from London and have come on the advice of Ryan (29), Maddy's boyfriend and a workshop regular who is a yoga instructor and the father of Lowe's grandson. Rounding off the central cast of characters is Brian, a 28 year-old charity sales rep also from London.
As the workshop progresses, the drama commences. Ryan develops a sexual rapport with Laurel, inspiring intense jealousy in Maddy, and her anguish doesn't diminish when she is persuaded to watch them having sex together.
Brian, meanwhile, develops an unreciprocated crush on Laurel, who feels the need to express her rage at his hurt feelings. The married Laurel calls her husband in London to explain that she is having sex with other men and is met with hurt feelings and talk of divorce.
Jamie dives into the programme but is more cautious about engaging in easy sex. When he does, however, he immediately calls Sophie to tell her, which leaves them both upset and confused.
What is interesting about the soap operas playing out in the workshop is that the sexual energy which Lowe's teachings release unlocks the emotional lives of the participants. While cynics may scoff at the scenes of grown adults sobbing and grasping for meaning from life, there is no doubting the courage these people have in exposing their minds as well as their bodies in the film.
Cynics will certainly ridicule a passage in which several workshoppers speak of their experiences with aliens, a short and absurd section which serves to undermine the rest of the film's earthbound issues.
Morgan maintains a sense of irony and self-mockery throughout, while simultaneously baring his soul for the camera, and his appealingly neurotic character elevates the film from the level of reality TV show.
There are some unanswered questions, however. Which woman did Morgan have a sexual connection with' Are the men having sex with other men, and the women with other women' Are condoms being used' Are the less attractive and older members of the group getting as much sex as the good-looking young Brits on show'
A coda at the end of the film cuts to the characters a year after the intense bubble of the workshop and epilogue cards describe their various states of spiritual well-being. While the lasting impression of the cards is one of new-age hokum, the film as a whole will provoke discussion and debate among adults who see it long after the credits roll.
Peter Martin, Piers Tempest