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Netflix doc ‘Bikram’ shows how #MeToo men get away with it

Netflix doc 'Bikram' shows how #MeToo men get away with it

Eva Orner didn’t set out to make a #MeToo movie. But by the time she finished shooting Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, which comes out on Netflix today, that’s what it had become.

“I already thought it was a very timely, interesting, relevant story that people would want to watch,” the Oscar- and Emmy-winning director says, over the phone. “And then after #MeToo broke, right in the middle of production, it was like, ‘Whoa, this has now become a different beast.’ It was the same story and I didn’t change the way we told it. But to me, it’s now a cautionary tale of how men got away with it.”

Bikram is a harrowing look at the man who introduced the eponymous, wildly popular style of yoga. Contrary to the appearance of the bendy discipline as a soothing balm of self-care, the film depicts how founder Bikram Choudhury created a hostile environment in his studios, rife with sexual abuse, and how he fostered a cult-like community around it to help keep his dark secrets.

Orner, who produced Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, first became aware of Bikram yoga, otherwise known as hot yoga, in the late nineties while living in Melbourne. A friend of hers asked the occasional yoga practitioner if she wanted to attend a class with her. Orner was interested, but when she saw a photo of Choudhury, famous for conducting classes wearing only his Rolex and a speedo, she begged off.

“Something about him bothered me,” she says. “A lot of my friends had gone and raved about it, and I knew the celebrity cachet and the Rolls-Royces and the lavish lifestyle and that Madonna had praised him, but I could tell it wasn’t for me.”

Bikram director Eva Orner [Photo: Celeste Sloman/courtesy of the subject]Over the ensuing years, the director was vaguely aware of Choudhury’s eventual court cases, but she didn’t know the details. It wasn’t until a developer at Pulse Films who had enjoyed Orner’s work reached out about taking on the project that she waded into the fine print. The physical closeness between yoga instructors and their students in general has led to widespread instances of inappropriate touching and other offenses, according to a recent New York Times report. What Choudhury has been accused of, though, goes way beyond. As Orner discovered, he has been accused of groping and other physical abuse, attempting to coerce his trainees into sex, and actual rape. He’s had six rape and assault cases filed against him in U.S. civil courts, four of which he’s settled, without any criminal indictments or warrants. Considering the breadth of the accusations against him, and the systematic nature of some of the abuse described, the director was astonished that only a handful of people had ever spoken out against Choudhury. Almost immediately, she realized there was more than enough material for a film.

In order to get started, she had to bite the bullet and finally take those hot yoga classes she’d long ago spurned.

As she started to investigate the allegations against Choudhury, most of the people she wanted to speak with, including his accusers, asked her right away whether she’d ever practiced Bikram yoga. The community of trainers, and those training to become trainers, is tight and focused, and its members take it extremely seriously. Orner had to gain their trust by actively trying to understand the subject of all this devotion. Doing the poses in high temperatures made her feel fantastic, but what she found out once people started letting their guard down did not.

Once she learned more about the community from its members, she began to see why so many people within it were either protective of Choudhury or lived in fear of speaking out against him.

Bikram Choudhury (center). [Photo: courtesy of Netflix]“I really get it because anyone who said anything lost their livelihood,” Orner says. “Sarah [one of Choudhury’s accusers]—this was going to be her life. They all wanted to be Bikram teachers and ultimately own studios. This was their community. And so by speaking out, they lost everything: their ability to earn money, their jobs, their friends. It was everything.”

Ultimately, all the women Orner approached who had been abused by Choudhury were willing to go on the record and share their stories. Some of them had spoken out before, others opened up to her for the first time anywhere. One person the director was especially excited to get on camera is Jakob Schanzer. Having undergone a substantial weight loss through Bikam yoga, he is a physical testament to its transformative power. He is also, however, a testament to how the community remained silent about Choudhury’s abuse for so long.

“I felt like we needed a man to be able to say, ‘I knew. They told me this was happening and I did nothing,’” Orner says. “It was brave of him—not to diminish the bravery of the women who spoke out first. I don’t think enough men in the #MeToo movement come…

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