The Wild Wild Country Directors Still Wonder Who Is Right and Wrong, Too

By
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the guru at the center of the Rajneeshee movement depicted in Wild Wild Country. Photo: Netflix

After watching Wild Wild Country, the buzzy Netflix docuseries that tells the totally insane story of the Rajneeshee community’s conflict with Oregon residents and government officials in the 1980s, you probably have a lot of questions. The brothers who directed the series, Chapman and Maclain Way, are here to answer them in a lengthy Q&A that explains how they got access to so much old footage, how they got to know the controversial Ma Anand Sheela, and why even they still wrestle with who is right and wrong in this complicated story.

I’m one of the people who somehow missed this whole story when it was unfolding. As I understand it, you guys weren’t necessarily familiar with the story either. I think you came upon it because an archivist said, “Oh, by the way, I have footage?”
CW:  The project started four years ago in 2014. We had just wrapped our first documentary, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, which took place in Portland, Oregon. We worked with a really prestigious film archive up there, the Oregon Historical Society, and we were talking to an archivist there who was asking us, “What are you guys doing for your next project?” We had a couple of ideas but nothing we were too in love with, and he basically told us, “Look I have 300 hours of archived footage on basically the most bizarre story that ever happened in the state of Oregon.”

He quickly gave us the rundown on this Indian guru and this group that built a $100 million utopian city. They took over the local town of Antelope politically, and then they bused in thousands of homeless people to take over the county, which led to this group poisoning of over 750 people. I remember Mac and I looking at each other thinking, “There’s no way he has this right. There’s no way this really happened. We know about Waco, we know about Jonestown. How is it possible this kind of slipped under the radar?” To be honest, it wasn’t until we started really doing research that we uncovered an even more complex story underneath the sensational topics of guns and sex and cults. There was this really layered conversation about religious rights and fear of the other and all sorts of topics that we found really fascinating. It was at that point that we instinctively knew the path would be a longer format series so that we can touch on all these different topics.

So how did you even begin? Did you start by sifting through all that footage? Reading old articles?
CW: The first order of business was to digitize all this footage. My wife produced and then Mac and I directed and the three of us dove into the archive. We’re a really small team; we don’t have a big post staff. It was really just us three cataloging the footage and going through it with a fine-tooth comb to make sure nothing was falling through the cracks.

Was the footage primarily old news footage?
MW: A lot of it was news footage that had been shot by local news stations in Portland. Some of it was footage that was shot by Rajneeshees or sannyasins themselves on the ranch that had been produced by the organization, kind of as these ad promo pieces of what life on the ranch was like. Some of it was just Super 8 footage that was almost like home-video footage.

An interesting thing about the news footage, because that was basically the bulk of the 300 hours that we had, was that in the early ’80s one of the big things in news stations was that they switched from 16mm film to tape. One of the big sells of tape was that you could tape over it and that would help reduce costs. So there’s actually a big gap in archival news footage that is in the same era that the Rajneeshees are, from like 1980 to 1985. Luckily, news stations in Portland knew how significant the Rajneeshees story would be in Oregon state history, so they never taped over any of their Rajneeshee tape, which really allowed for something like Wild Wild Country to happen in the first place.

That’s really interesting.
CW: A lot of this archive news footage was raw news footage. It wasn’t just what appeared on the nightly news — they were these unedited hour-long tapes of these cameramen basically being given full access to the commune, to go around and talk to sannyasins and film them working their jobs and working out in the field. So it’s almost like an archival vérité doc.

When you start going through the footage, the first thing that really jumps out at you is this Ma Anand Sheela character. As a documentary filmmaker and as a human being, we were immediately attracted to her story. She’s this very strong, fierce woman who doesn’t take shit from anyone. She speaks her mind openly and plainly and we knew right away that we have to talk to her.

So after going through the archive, she was one of the first characters we reached out to about this series, and we were able to track down some obscure email address for this health center that she runs in this small village in Switzerland, and through there we were able to contact her. We got her on the phone and it was clear talking to her within a few minutes that she just felt like she’d never been given a platform to tell her version of the story.

Exactly how much time did you spent with Sheela? What were your impressions of her when you were interviewing her?
CW: Before we interviewed her, we took two separate trips to her city in Switzerland called Maisprach, and we spent a whole day with her on both of those trips, just getting to know her. Then there was about a year in between those trips when we went back there to do our interview with her. We ended up spending five days with her, and we interviewed her for about four hours a day. We ended up with around 18 to 20 hours of interview footage with her. And before we met her, this was someone that Oregon state officials, who we had preinterviewed, referred to as pure evil. Obviously when we were going there for the first time, it’s an intimidating experience. You’re nervous. I remember the first time we got out of the car, she came outside — and this was during the U.S. election primary — before she even introduced herself, she started making jokes about how awful Donald Trump was, and how the U.S. was really going down the drain politically and culturally since she was living there.

She was immediately charming, she was immediately funny, and we got to know her. And as a documentary filmmaker, it is a difficult process having to reconcile this person that we know from the archive who, you know, committed some pretty horrific acts, with this woman and how she’s conducting her life now. It was a really interesting five days we spent interviewing her.

MW: I love a lot of documentaries that use expert talking heads on an issue, whether they be Ph.D.s or professors or lawyers. But in Wild Wild Country, what we hope some of the entertainment that an audience could take away from it was, who’s reliable and who’s not? And Sheela’s probably at the top of that list, and she should be. She’s someone that at times is reliable, and at times is very unreliable. Hopefully part of what Wild Wild Country does is that it allows the audience to take a position on an issue that they didn’t really know about, because many people are coming to this story for the first time. But then as you work your way through the series, hopefully you’re forced to question the position that you took.

It’s one of those things where, yes I think there was probably some bigotry, either conscious or unconscious, on the part of some of the people who lived there. But obviously, the Rajneeshees were doing things that were not right. So you can understand why people were skeptical of them. It’s possible for multiple things to be true at once.
CW: I’ve said this before but, we’ve been working on it for four years and it’s completely locked and edited, and I still wake up in the middle of the night going, “Yeah, but this group did this,” and then, “Wait, but then they did this,” And I teeter back and forth from thinking one group’s right, one group’s wrong, to both groups are wrong, maybe both groups are right. It almost changes on a daily basis still, even working on this four years later.

When you spoke with Sheela, did you get a sense that she felt any kind of remorse?
CW: I think some of our personal takeaways from spending time with Sheela is that she feels very justified in the reactions or the actions that she undertook. I think she very much feels that she was protecting her people, her family, her master, her commune, from these outside attacks. It’s a very interesting question, because she doesn’t show empathy, but I don’t necessarily know if she can be — I don’t know. It’s a very complex question, and my takeaway was, I did not get the sense that she has much remorse for what was inflicted upon the Oregonians.

MW: As we got to spend more time with Sheela, no, I don’t think that she has remorse for what happened to Oregonians and I don’t think she would ever call Oregonians victims of her actions or Rajneesh actions or Rajneeshpuram. Also, though, I don’t think that she came to America with these intentions to poison 750 people. I think it was like, she bought this 64,000-acre ranch in the middle of nowhere, and she comes from a country in India where there is very lax land-use laws, and she proceeded to spend $110 million very rapidly, building a utopian dream, and now for her to have some environmental watchdog group throw a wrench in that, she was not going to back down and be like, “All right, you know what, let’s pack up and find somewhere else that we can do this.”

Very quickly she had committed a tremendous amount of resources, and Bhagwan, and Rajneeshees, into this experiment, and it wasn’t like she was going take a step back. But then when she survived the land-use attack, well, now there’s a church-state battle brewing on the horizon and there’s that working its way through the courts. Now she feels like, “Okay, well the federal government is going after Bhagwan’s visa status and immigration status,” and so I think for Sheela, she just felt like these vultures were constantly circling her in Oregon.

CW: Mac said something interesting, I thought, which is, I don’t believe Ma Anand Sheela was born a psychopath. What this show does is pulls back the layers and shows what she believes led her to this kind of atrocious criminal behavior. That’s what’s a little unnerving about the series is you have to ask yourself these same questions as Sheela is going through these issues. The response on social media, and Twitter, and Facebook has been really fascinating, seeing different groups of people who are more sympathetic to what Sheela was, and then people who are more dismissive. It’s been really fascinating seeing, especially women, and especially women of color and minorities, have a little bit more empathy for the situation that she was put in.

There’s a saying that, you know, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and when you meet Sheela and spend time with her, and get to know her family and her loved ones and the community of sannyasins, you realize how complex that quote is.

Would you even call the Rajneeshees members of a cult, or would you not use that word?
CW: If you talk to Rajneeshees, they find the word cult very insensitive and derogatory. They believe it’s used to demean and delegitimize their spiritual religious beliefs, which is obviously a very challenging topic. I’m not very spiritual or religious. Before this I had sort of a knee-jerk, dismissive reaction to cults. “They’re brainwashed” and “Who joins these things?”

It was my experience talking to many sannyasins when we were doing research, some of whom weren’t even in the series, that these were not brainwashed people. These were consenting adults that joined this movement to better their lives. We’re all susceptible to wanting to be loved and feel like we’re part of a community and part of a group. No matter how dismissive we are, I truly think there’s a small part in all of us that wants to belong to something greater. But as the story unfolds, you can see how absolute devotion can be manipulated and used against its followers. One of the important things we wanted to show was our Jane Stork character, the Australian woman who joins with good intentions of building this community based on love and harmony and peace — slowly you can see how her devotion to Bhagwan was manipulated into her doing some horrifying acts. It starts to become a game inside the commune of “Who loves Bhagwan the most? Who’s most devoted to Bhagwan?” And that can lead to some very scary consequences.

MW: I think about it often: What is the difference between a commune and a cult? And that it starts off as a commune, like in ’81, ’82, ’83, and then it starts to dive into a cult. A lot of cult stories show the internal process of how things turn into cults. An interesting perspective on the story of Rajneeshpuram, which I think is what Wild Wild Country looked at, was, well, maybe it was external factors that pushed this group from becoming a commune into a cult. I’m not saying that, personally, but it’s certainly a good question, and one of the central questions of the series.

But it’s complicated and I think that there’s elements of the Rajneeshees that totally was like a cult, and that there’s elements of them where they really consider themselves, like, free-thinking individuals. I mean, this was a population of 2,500, so we’re talking 96, 97, 98 percent of the people on the ranch will tell you, and I believe them, that they had no idea about the poisonings or the assassination attempts. They knew 5,000 people were getting bused in, but your average sannyasin that works on the ranch will just tell you, “Man, this was devastating for us to find out that a small group of our leaders were committing these atrocious acts.”

In a documentary like this, invariably there are interviews with people who were in a cult and will say, “I finally got out” and talk about having been brainwashed. But I didn’t feel that anybody spoke in those terms, with the exception of Jane Stork/Shanti Bhadra, to some degree.
CW: I truly would say that the majority of them feel like this was the greatest thing that they were ever a part of in their life. Yes, there are individuals who feel like, “I donated my life savings to this group and it all got messed up,” but we talk about it in episode five, which is when the criminal actions started coming out. The federal officials were shocked they couldn’t get these sannyasins to flip on the guru. They said, “Usually when we go into these religious sects, a lot of the followers are resentful and they feel taken advantage of by their leader.” That’s not to say that there aren’t people in modern day who feel that way.

Shanti Bhadra told us something very interesting that’s in this series. She said she didn’t feel like she was brainwashed, but she feels like she allowed herself to become spellbound by this man and this movement, and I thought that was a really interesting way of her taking responsibility for this. She believes she allowed for this to happen, that it didn’t happen to her involuntarily.

MW: We have Noran, who was our attorney, and you know, Noran is dyed in the wool, and he will tell you he’s gonna be a sannyasin until the day he dies. He still very much considers himself devoted to the teachings of Osho, of his guru. Sheela’s somewhere in the middle. She obviously still has a very close personal relationship with Bhagwan, but she’s highly critical of the sannyasin community. She feels like she was thrown under the bus, and she really doesn’t have any sannyasin friends or Rajneeshee friends anymore. And Jane is someone that does feel like, yeah, this became a cult, and, like Chap said, “Maybe I wasn’t brainwashed but I maybe allowed myself to become spellbound by this man’s allure, and we did awful things.”

On the government and law-enforcement side, there were a couple of expressions of, “Maybe we didn’t handle that as well as we should have.” But did you get any sense from those sources that there was some remorse on their part or regret?
CW: When we talked to the state and federal officials that we interviewed in this series, both truly felt this was a pretty glowing example of how government can deal with these very complicated issues without a single bullet being fired, no one died, nothing catastrophic happened because of the involvement of these government agencies. So they feel proud that despite all the chaos and tension, they were able to deal with this very difficult political situation through legal matters, and they handled it correctly. There’s definitely truth to that.

One thing that was puzzling to me was that they went to all the trouble to catch Bhagwan and have him in custody for a while and then they ultimately let him go. I think an official was asked about that at a press conference and didn’t give a particularly good answer to the question.
CW: Yeah, it’s a really strange situation. It’s a little bit like the Al Capone story. They couldn’t find any evidence that linked him to the poisoning. The government couldn’t find any evidence that linked them to these political assassination attempts. The one thing they found they could get him on was these fraudulent marriages between American sannyasins and foreign sannyasins to procure green-card visas for the foreigners. That’s ultimately what they got him on. A little of the bizarre nature of the ending of the story is that Bhagwan was on a plane to flee the country, to not come back. But they ground the plane, they arrest him, they drag him across the country for two weeks to prosecute him, only to make him leave the country again, which he was doing two weeks earlier.

MW: I don’t think it was really ever the intention of the United States government to keep Bhagwan in jail. I think they knew early on that if we really want to solve what they called “the Rajneesh Problem” they can’t come at it by attacking Sheela or higher-up members. They knew that wherever he is, these people will follow him. I think they were highly motivated to find something on him and then immediately move towards a plea agreement that would have deportation as the primary effort. I think even openly they talked at some point that they didn’t want like a martyring of some kind by keeping Bhagwan, not permanently, but in jail as a part of the sentence.

CW: To this day no one knows how involved the guru was in the criminal activity. Was he aware of it? Was he not? Because Sheela wiretapped the entire ranch, there are tapes that the FBI has that are supposedly taken inside the guru’s bedroom that might touch on this topic. There have been Freedom of Information Acts that have been filed, but they refuse to release these tapes because the people being recorded were unaware that they were being recorded. Maybe one day we’ll know  the truth of what was going on between the guru and Sheela, but right now, with the materials that are available, we just don’t know.

You obviously had so much material to work with that you couldn’t possibly use every piece of information that you learned through this process. What was the most difficult thing to cut out of the documentary?
CW: I don’t know if it was the most difficult part for me to take out, but one of the most interesting sections I thought that we cut was, we added a day-in-the-life section and it was basically just a look at what it was actually like to be a sannyasin and live inside Rajneeshpuram and what that daily activity was like. From waking up in the A-frame in the hills, to going down and sharing breakfast and tea with your friends and your lovers, and then going out and working in the field or working in the press office or working in the legal department. To then, you know, attending your spiritual activities at night where they would listen to discourses of the guru. There were some really beautiful moments that from their perspective captured the magic of what they were doing out there. I’ve talked to a couple of people that are like, “I still don’t understand what they were doing out there.” This section really captured what this experiment meant to the sannyasins just in their daily life. Maybe we can find a way on the director’s cut or extra releases to get it out there. Because I do think it is an interesting insight into what their daily life was like.

MW: There were 2,500 sannyasins out there and the vast majority of them were not decision-makers. I feel like maybe that’s been lost or truncated a little bit, and that part of why we were also interested in putting that day-in-the-life section was to show that there’s a little bit of a difference here between leaders and commune members. But, like, Chap said, we just couldn’t really find a place for it.

Since the documentary has come out, have you heard from any of the people who are in the documentary?
CW: We’ve heard from quite a few Antelopeans and we’ve heard from quite a few of the Rajneeshees. We sent links out to Sheela before our Sundance premiere and she wrote us back something along the lines of, “Wow, I can’t believe all the hatred and the prejudice I had to go through, but look what I endured.” I think there are some things in the series that are very hard for her to watch, but she’s proud of the way that she conducted herself. We’ve also heard from the Antelopeans that feel like, “Wow, you’ve really shown the dangers of cults and what it can ultimately lead to and you showed the pressure that we were under as our town was taken over.” We’ve really been getting positive feedback from both sides of this issue.

Have you gotten any interest from anybody who might be wanting to adapt this as a fictional version of this story? I was thinking to myself that this could easily be a limited series.
MW: The really interesting things that we weren’t able to get into were actually about the guru. Because he took this vow of silence and stepped back away from the spotlight, there just really wasn’t that much footage about him, about his life, about what he was doing inside the ranch, what his thought process was, how much involvement did he have. But I think if there was a narrative adaptation it would be fascinating to dive into a little bit more of the guru and his background and the kind of mystery that surrounds him. We haven’t had any real legitimate talks about an adaptation, but I think it’s something that could be really interesting and add to the story.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Wild Country Directors Have Complicated Feelings on the Cult