What’s the premise?
In 1981 a handful of people, dressed in orange, arrived in the tiny town of Antelope. The ‘orange people’ had purchased an uninhabitable, 64,000-acre ranch on the outskirts of town, and in the following months more worshippers descended in their hundreds. Local residents – many of whom were retired – were perturbed. Just a year later, the ranch – now known as the city of Rajneeshpuram – had taken control of Antelope’s government, installed their own mayor, and morphed into an expansive commune that, at its height, housed almost 7,000 followers.
Through a series of in-depth interviews with the residents, law enforcement officers and high-level Rajneeshees, the documentary tells the tale of guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and how his controversial community came to clash with the US government, with violent results.
Who was Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh?
Born in India in 1931, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh became a spiritual guru in the 1960s after hosting ten-day meditation camps. As the sixties continued, the self-styled ‘Bhagwan’ (‘the revered’ in Indian) began to denounce orthodox religions and called for ‘free love’ acceptance, quickly becoming known as a ‘sex guru’ in the India press. By the 1970s, he’d created his own ‘ashram’ camp in Poona, India which, by 1980, was hosting up to 30,000 visitors a year. Following threatened legal action by the Indian authorities, Bhagwan and his followers upped sticks to America in 1981 and established the city of Rajneeshpuram. Here, he undertook a four-year silence and amassed 93 Rolls-Royces, in which he’d perform a daily drive-by for his disciples.
Why was the group so controversial?
Many of the initial tensions that grew towards the Rajneeshees were centred on legal use of the ranch. (Thankfully, the series doesn’t get too bogged down in town-planning law.) Antelope’s townspeople were alerted to what their new neighbours were up to via the 1981 film Ashram in Poona. Filmed by a former follower, the fly-on-the-wall documentary highlighted everyday life at Bhagwan’s Indian camp. A shock to the system for the religious retirees of Antelope, the film showed a series of ‘alternative’ therapies, some of which showed Bhagwan’s disciples writhing on top of each other, naked and screaming. Needless to say, the locals weren’t impressed.
And then there’s Ma Anand Sheela. Bhagwan’s personal secretary, Sheela was second in command, and said by many Rajneeshees to be the driving force within the community. Her gutsy reputation was cemented with a series of high-profile, expletive-ridden television interviews. Years later, as tensions grew between Bhagwan and his deputy, a sect led by Sheela would go on to commit a series of criminal offences on behalf of the commune, including America’s largest-ever case of bio-terrorism and the nation’s biggest immigration-fraud scheme. Sheela, along with a number of her splinter group, would later be jailed for three separate assassination attempts.
Will I like it?
This is definitely one for anyone who loved the nitty-gritty details of Making a Murderer or Emma Cline’s The Girls. Although we feel as though it probably could have been trimmed down to five episodes (the second and third episodes take a while to get going), director brothers MacLain and Chapman Way have made a gripping documentary that really explores the heart of the Rajneeshee community.
As incredible as the original footage is (the late-70s aesthetic lends a really dreamy tone to the film), it’s through the revealing interviews with the Rajneeshees’ key players that you truly see the timeline unfold. In a boon for the filmmakers, Sheela is a willing – and thrilling – interviewee. Elsewhere, other members of Bhagwan’s upper echelons (in particular his charismatic attorney Phillip J. Toelkes) come across as articulate and intelligent and they still speak effusively of their former leader. With this is mind, it isn’t easy to just dismiss the cult as a society of brainwashed followers.
Bhagwan’s disciples weren’t just the vulnerable or disenfranchised looking for something to live for. They were lawyers, doctors, film producers and engineers. They were wealthy and willing to donate to the cause. Together, they had all the skills to build the city; the sewage and electricity systems, crop fields, restaurants, banks and an airstrip. Watching the group transform a desert into a thriving community is heartening, particularly when those shown on screen appear to be genuinely committed to creating their ‘Shangri-La’, and living in an equal, peaceful community.
But Wild Wild Country’s narrative is balanced. We’re also exposed to the opinions of the police who were on the case and the citizens whose lives were turned upside down by the Rajneeshees’ arrival; Antelope’s only school closed down, people moved away and shops and cafes became derelict. Even once the commune disbanded in 1985, the ordeal left its mark on the Oregonians that were left behind.
Whichever side you end up on, one thing’s for certain: the lure of a cult continues to fascinate.
Where can I watch it?
Wild Wild Country is available to stream on Netflix now
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