Wild Wild Country details the insane clusterfuck that results when faith, fundamentalism, and media hype intersect.
By Matt Hanson
It’s not every day that a Netflix documentary series earns an SNL lampoon, which is precisely what happened last week with a sketch spoofing the much buzzed about new series Wild Wild Country. The sketch works whether you’ve seen the show or not, but if you didn’t laugh during it, don’t worry, you can get in on the joke by streaming what’s probably the most epic documentary Netflix has done this year. It tells the surprisingly engrossing story of the early eighties standoff between the Rajneeshpuram commune, led by the mysterious Indian guru Bhagwan, and the local occupants of the town of Antelope Oregon, population of about forty.
This unique instance of culture clash unfolds via a complex and vividly told narrative detailing the insane clusterfuck that results when faith, fundamentalism, and media hype intersect. The story of the enigmatic leader known as Bhagwan and his fiery second-in-command Sheela is told entirely through the words of the people who lived through it, from both sides. Through a superbly edited mixture of interviews and documentary footage, we are immersed in the drama without the need of a central narrator. The documentary sustains dramatic momentum by brilliantly shifting perspectives; our sense of the aggrieved party changes from chapter to chapter.
As some commenters have noted, it’s easy to see how our current social divisions haven’t really changed in thirty years. On the one side, we have the purple-clad Rajneeshees, devoted followers of the Bhagwan (referred to as sannyasins), who came from all over to meditate, absorb their guru’s teachings, and apparently spend hours undulating in groups. There is the occasional disturbing glimpse of what appear to be group therapy sessions degenerating into full psychodrama, but generally life on the commune sounds like one extended love-in, which irritates the stoic locals to no end. We see the stern faces of the residents of a once a sleepy town in Oregon complain about the freaks who’d just bought the large ranch next door and make weird sounds at all hours of the night. It sounds like a classic case of drippy hippies freaking out the squares, but this is only the beginning of the drama.
The directors don’t tell us much about the Bhagwan’s actual teachings. We learn that he had an advanced degree in philosophy and wrote many pamphlets emphasizing free love, meditation, and some sort of hazily defined idea of “creativity.” What’s more interesting to the filmmakers is how the commune functioned as a self-interested organization. While listening to the testimony of the Bhagwan’s inner circle, it’s amusing and all-too-human to hear their awestruck descriptions about the master’s flowing beard, deep voice, and heavy-lidded eyes. We were reminded just how easy it is to build up a community of true believers — provided you’ve got the proper guru shtick down pat.
Interestingly, the Bhagwan was quite open all along about his unique brand of magical capitalism — affluent twentysomethings flocked to seek meaning and rid themselves of all their pesky worldly goods. The Bhagwan remarks at one point, with odd practicality, that other groups failed because of the stupid assumption that they don’t need money to survive. The emphasis on sexuality probably didn’t hurt enrollment either – at times, Rajneeshpuram seemed like a mystic’s version of an overactive Club Med. Bhagwan’s followers were more than happy to put their money where their chakras were and showed their commitment through buying things like a Rajneesh-backed credit card and scooping up officially licensed merchandise. Enlightenment was offered as consumer product, eerily foreshadowing the Jesus Incorporated style of rhetoric that became prominent later in the decade, with televangelism and free-market fundamentalism going lucratively mainstream. Led by their sandal-clad CEO, the commune raked in untold millions; members cheerfully showered their leader with gold watches, a private plane, and a dozen Rolls Royce’s.
The commune’s biggest attraction was evidently its sense of community — several articulate former members explain that they’d never before been in a place where they felt so loved and accepted. After buying up some land in nowheresville Oregon, the sannyasins (many of whom were engineers and city planners in their past lives) happily worked sixteen-hour days building their own fully functioning, autonomous town. Eventually, the tensions between the sudden influx of hairy, purple-clad strangers and the wary locals came to a head over the Rajneesh’s interest in packing the Wasco County political system with sannyasin. At this point, things got even weirder.
Sheela takes center stage, a fellow traveler who’d decamped to the states and became the Bhagwan’s right-hand woman. In her interviews, her still-firm devotion to the commune and to the man leading it is obvious. Her aged voice is steady and her eyes are fierce as she explains that she did whatever was necessary to protect her community from the hostile outside world, which meant arming and training her sannyasin in self-defense and creating their own police force. The journalists and federal investigators who explain their version of the story allude to plenty of cryptic events. Why the sudden outbreak of salmonella poisoning at the town’s salad bars? And why does the Bhagwan spontaneously take a three-year vow of silence? Who’s in charge, anyway? Each episode provides a crucial plot twist which is all the more compelling because it is true, with every aggressive, morally dubious act pushing both sides towards a larger confrontation.
Sheela became the prominent public voice of the Rajneesh commune, appearing on nationally televised talk shows with the Bhagwan’s blessing. Sheela clearly reveled in being as outrageous as possible, bantering on Nightline and openly mocking anyone who dared to criticize her movement. Her defiant fierceness worked, in some ways, providing crucial public cover for the commune to keep pursuing its scruffily corporatized love-in. At times Sheela assumed an adamantine role of taskmaster and prophet, a little bit like a mixture between Margaret Thatcher and Joan of Arc. When one commentator grumbles that the Bhagwan owns a dozen Rolls Royce’s, Sheela proudly retorts that the number is actually twenty, and getting bigger all the time. Apparently Sheela has recently become a popular meme on social media, with her message to the disgruntled Oregonians summarized in two words: “tough titties.” Apparently, some on social media are craving a tough female figure of any stripe to valorize — is this a result of Hillary’s failed Presidential bid?
The last chapters take us through an increasingly chaotic and paranoid denouement. There’s a suspicious hotel bombing, high-flying but plausible rumors about attempts at mass poisoning, a sudden convocation of homeless people, federal agents under threat, and palace intrigue that includes a surreptitious butt stabbing. The showdown unavoidably gets picked up by the mass media; it is viewed through grainy archival footage in a montage that suggests the hysteria that occasionally seizes the American psyche. The conflict becomes a national joke, played for laughs in the court of public opinion.
A battery of moral questions becomes increasingly urgent, related to the limits of civil rights and the separation of church and state. Some of the Rajneesh adherents chuckle over the moral complexities of the situation, others still seem entirely convinced of the rightness of their actions. The feds and the townspeople remain shaken and incredulous over what went down all those years ago. At some points it turns into farce — the Bhagwan’s last year on earth turns madcap very quickly. As one sannyasin puts it, “if the federal government decides it wants to get you, they’re going to get you.”
For all its exoticism, the Rajneeshpuram was in some ways as American as apple pie. The sannyasins voted early and often with their checkbooks and generally seemed more than happy to do so. But how far down the rabbit hole did their commitment take them? Maybe the allure of a life of undulating in purple jumpsuits and meeting like-minded strangers to get groovy together just sounded like more fun than church camp. Maybe the brainwashing about confusing money with salvation began early in life, making them easy marks for a charismatic con man with metaphysical pretentions. It might be a testament to the power of the will to believe just about anything, which is a very American theme. Any way you look at it, for all its supposed rejection of Western values, the Rajneeshpuram sure knew how to cash in. Even now, after thirty years gone by, we’re still watching.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.