The Bhagwan and his followers.
The incredible tale of the volatile relationship between the members of the Rajneeshpuram commune and the residents of an Oregon town that the community decided to call home received a great deal of media attention in the 1980s. Local and national news covered it, especially as it escalated into a broader, more sweeping story that involved federal criminal prosecution. The Oregonian ran a massive investigative piece about it and has done follow-ups since. The guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose followers lived on the commune, and his controversial personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, appeared on 60 Minutes, and Johnny Carson sang a song about the Bhagwan on The Tonight Show. Somehow I missed the whole thing. I guess I was too busy on the other side of the country, collecting puffy stickers and ripping pictures of Duran Duran out of Tiger Beat, to notice what was happening.
If you’re like me, Wild, Wild Country, a new six-part docuseries that lands today on Netflix, will open your eyes to what is a flat-out crazy and fascinating chapter in American history. It is a story that involves religion, free love, land use disputes, one of the co-founders of Nike, an exalted guru, abuse of power, arson, the wife of one of the producers of The Godfather, attempted murder, mass poisoning, an obsession with Rolls-Royces, the homeless, election battles, and one extremely bizarre anecdote about attempting to contaminate a town’s water supply using blended beaver parts. That is only the tip of the iceberg. “Someone will write a book about this,” an Oregon official says in footage that appears in episode one, “and I will guarantee you when that book comes out, people will say that it’s fiction.” In the ’80s, he couldn’t have imagined Netflix, or anticipated a docuseries like this one.
Directed by sibling filmmakers Chapman and MacLain Way and produced by another pair of brothers, Mark and Jay Duplass, Wild Wild Country immediately suggests that its narrative will wind toward some intriguing places, but devotes much of its first episode to explaining the history of the cultlike religion built around the teachings of a man who advocates for fully living life via open sex, freedom of individual expression, and meditation. Part two begins to explore in more depth the conflicts that arise after the Bhagwan and his followers move their headquarters to a sprawling 80,000-acre ranch in the rocky hills near Antelope (population: 40) in 1981. The longtime residents in town and near the ranch — including Jon Bowerman, the son of Bill Bowerman, who designed the original Nike sneaker — realize the Rajneeshees, who dress in various shades of red and orange like a more colorful version of The Leftovers’ Guilty Remnant, are trying to build a mini-town of their own.
The old-timers grow concerned. A dispute arises over whether the property can be used for that purpose, prompting the Rajneeshees to start purchasing plots in town, more than doubling Antelope’s population and making it pretty easy for them to get the votes needed to win a majority of the seats on the city council. The town name is changed from Antelope to Rajneeshpuram. That’s only the beginning of what transpires over a tumultuous several years, for the state of Oregon, the Rajneeshee believers, and the government agents who get tugged into the case when it becomes clear that some higher-level crimes may be going down on that ranch.
Like most good documentarians, the Ways conduct interviews with key figures in this drama without fully passing judgment on any of them and leaving it up to viewers to draw their own conclusions. There are moments, especially early on, when it seems like the citizens of Antelope may be acting purely out of bigotry and fear of the unknown. Some of the rhetoric used by locals in extensive archival news footage — some of which has the muddy audio quality and janky visuals of an old VHS tapes — is not terribly dissimilar from the way hard-line politicians and Americans talk now about keeping immigrants out of the United States.
The Rajneesh faithful who appear on camera all sound perfectly rational and look like the kind of graying, progressive adults you might accidentally bump your cart into at your local Trader Joe’s. They still talk in glowing, tearful terms about their time living on the ranch and the impact that the Bhagwan, later renamed Osho, had on their lives. A lot of the time they seem … pretty harmless?
But then you remember that, oh yeah, some of them were apparently responsible for, among other things, causing a salmonella outbreak deemed the largest attack of biological terrorism in the United States. While initially the Rajneeshpuram leaders used dirty but legal tactics to pursue their interests, after a while “there was talk of killing people to get what you wanted, to get them out of the way,” says Jane Stork, a gentle Australian woman with a gray bob who used to go by the name Shanti Padra. She eventually served time in prison for attempted murder.
By far the most fascinating, multi-faceted person in this series is Ma Anand Sheela, a.k.a. Sheela Birnstiel, who, as the Bhagwan’s closest aide and spokeswoman, became the most public and outspoken face of the Rajneeshpuram community. Talking now, as a petite senior citizen who works with the elderly in Germany and possesses a calming Indian accent, she seems about as threatening as Aziz Ansari’s mother on Master of None. But the docuseries reminds us that she was a fiery, unapologetic, and ruthless warrior for her people, dropping profanities during televised interviews with Phil Donahue and Ted Koppel and making it clear she wouldn’t hesitate to resort to violence if necessary.
“Do you think a person like you will make me run for cover?” she says defiantly to one white male broadcast journalist at one point in the early ’80s. “That’s a joke.” You can’t help but admire the woman’s tenacity in a lot of ways. But she also never shows remorse about any pain and suffering she may have caused and, by the accounts of those who investigated her as well as those who lived with her, had no moral compass. In short, this woman makes Walter White look like Mary Poppins. She is fascinating. Someone should make a limited series just about her.
Given the obsession Hollywood has with projects about cults these days, they probably will. Between American Horror Story: Cult, Paramount TV’s Waco, and the forthcoming Quentin Tarantino film about Charles Manson, we can’t seem to get enough of stories like this, perhaps because we’re fascinated by what can compel a person to give up their ordinary life and devote their existence to someone they perceive as exalted. We never think that we could be persuaded by what looks like one massive diabolical con job. But how can we be so sure?
The kicker on this docuseries subtly drives that point home by looking at who eventually took over the land where the Rajneeshees once lived, fornicated, and meditated. It’s now owned by Young Life, a ministry that hosts camps for teens who want to devote themselves to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
“Young Life is made up of people like you,” says the organization’s website, “who know that life was meant to be fully lived.”