Set aside a six-hour window for the weekend of March 16, because you’re going to want to binge the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country. Screened at the Sundance Film Festival in one exhausting, gripping gulp, it’s a slice of partially forgotten history in which real life just keeps getting more and more outlandish and implausible.
The events of Wild Wild Country are just on the outskirts of my memory, but the facts are these: In 1981, Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh purchased a vast tract of land in Wasco County, Oregon, with a goal of shaping the remote valley into a centerpiece of a religious movement focusing on dynamic mediation, free love, harmony and the crafting of The New Man. The influx of newcomers, clad in red and orange outfits, brings out insecurities in their nearest neighboring town, the tiny community of Antelope. An outpost of only 40 residents, most solitary ranchers and retirees, Antelope pushes back against the interlopers with their blissed-out expressions and inexcusably loud sex noises. They’re about to discover that in Bhagwan’s private secretary and longtime lieutenant Ma Anand Sheela, they’ve made a cutthroat enemy willing to use all manner of electoral and civic maneuvering to allow her community and movement to spread, and if those legal recourses fail, Sheela may be prepared to take more aggressive steps.
The first of the six episodes is the only one to slightly lag, because it’s half foreshadowing for the rest of the series — Antelope mayor John Silvertooth recounts a portentous meeting with a man who warned him “They are coming” and “This is gonna be a lot of trouble” without ever returning to who that man was or how he knew what he knew other than “profiling” — and exhaustive background on Bhagwan and his early days in India. Still, it’s important foundation-laying, because otherwise you’d never know what this group stood for other than tormenting the grumpy cowboys of Antelope.
Although the story of Wild Wild Country is set up as a clash between the Rajneeshees and Antelope, that’s only a small part of the story directors Chapman Way and Maclain Way (The Battered Bastards of Baseball) are telling. The Antelope conflict is just a very micro view of a particular American paranoia regarding religious and cultural difference in the Reagan/post-Jonestown early ’80s. The story gets bigger and bigger as the expanding Rajneeshee city attracts the attention of state and national officials, and we’re forced to ask ourselves questions about the difference between cult and religion, the protections of the Bill of Rights, the threat of the unfamiliar, selective government-sponsored prosecution and persecution, but also if we have a threshold for how much minor corruption and law-breaking might justify a crackdown and when actions are enough to constitute what several talking heads call “evil.”
The Way brothers have been gifted with an impressive amount of primary footage from the period. The Rajneeshees were sure they were building a beacon city for the world and, as such, they documented most steps of what was an ambitious, from-scratch process. Salacious footage of gyrating, purging meditation exercises, as well as writhing orgies and matter-of-fact nudity is more than offset by mundane footage of land-clearing, construction and spiritual conversation. It was also a story that interested the national media and captivated the Pacific Northwest media, and Sheela was a stylishly dressed, casually profane provocateur given a frequent television spotlight.
Ma Anand Sheela, now living in Switzerland, is the series’ showcase talking head. More than 30 years after the events of the series, she’s still blunt, combative and completely untrustworthy. The accusations leveled against Sheela at various points, by people on all sides, go largely undiscussed, and I don’t know if she set certain things off-limits, was unresponsive on certain details or if the Ways figured they had enough of her spin. Actually, Sheela’s probably less evasive and more convincing than the Rajneeshee lawyer now known as Swami Prem Niren, whose recollections are a disquieting combination of intellect and Kool-aid, which turns out to have been the ideal profile for embracing Bhagwan. The law enforcement and government figures, basically every U.S. attorney or Oregon DA still alive, all have a righteous zeal and lack of doubt makes them suspect. Basically, the Ways didn’t overload the documentary with random talking heads. It’s only people with specific and detailed roles in the story, and that means their perspectives are entrenched. Jane Stork, an Australian who worked her way into Sheela’s inner circle, is maybe the only figure in the series who would admit to being wrong about anything, which makes her quite sympathetic.
Wild Wild Country is a story without obvious or consistent heroes or villains, just a lot of people who are convinced they’re heroes or wouldn’t admit to us if they were villains. It’s also a story in which the second half becomes an increasingly crazy progression featuring mass poisonings, Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, attempted murder, law enforcement raids, extraditions, exiles and beavers (just you wait) without the truth becoming any clearer. Almost everything we’re told feels like spin, delusion or urban legend and the inability to fully believe a single character produces an unsettling ambiguity, denying the basic pleasure of “answers.” That makes Wild Wild Country a worthwhile thought experiment in addition to a yarn that is, as the title promises, doubly wild.
Director: Chapman Way and Maclain Way
Producers: Juliana Lembi
Executive producers: Mark Duplass & Jay Duplass, Josh Braun & Dan Braun, Lisa Nishimura, Ben Cotner, Adam Del Deo
Editor: Neil Meiklejohn
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Special Events Premiere)