A mostly forgotten story that played out in the 1980s has become a documentary series that has the television world agog. It’s called Wild Wild Country, and it is an instant classic. Its six hour-long episodes made their debut on 16 March on Netflix. Here’s why you’ll want to binge on it this Easter weekend. And if you need any more persuasion, check out Wild Wild Country’s Rotten Tomatoes score: 100%. By TONY JACKMAN.
Imagine a tiny Karoo dorp, population 40. Mostly elderly, retired people live there. They’re all white, and stuck in their ways. One day strangers wearing crimson, and purple, orange and pink stroll into town. Then more, followed by trucks, in turn followed by yet bigger trucks with the makings of A-frame houses on them. They’re all headed for a ranch outside of town. Before long, a small city has sprung up. It has shops and restaurants, even an airport. Ultimately it will swamp these small lives, who for some years will live in the shadows of a cult which grows tentacles throughout the world.
It sounds impossible, it certainly sounds bizarre. Most definitely, it could not possibly be true. But this is no wild, wild reverie on the part of a tripped-out writer who managed to persuade Netflix to take on such an insane story (after an earlier six-hour-stretch mini-binge at Sundance). It’s real. It happened. But not in the Karoo: it happened in Oregon, USA, in the 1980s. That’s the state second from the top on the left-hand side of the USA, just below Washington state. And it is the most compelling docuseries you’re likely to find anywhere. It also has a great soundtrack of mostly little-known songs which you can access here.
Wild Wild Country is causing a sensation right now in the television world. It’s directed by the Way brothers, Maclain and Chapman, and produced by, among others, Mark and Jay Duplass, and is about the cult that shipped out from India in the early 1980s when a spiritual leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a.k.a. the Bhagwan (and later Osho), decided to transfer his entire ashram to a ranch he had bought near the tiny town of Antelope in Oregon. This after the Bhagwan seemingly fell foul of Indian authorities for reasons which remain unclear.
What helps make Wild Wild Country so compelling is the stuff it’s made of: a trove of 300 hours of home movies which are used to spin this fascinating and multilayered true story. Considering that less than six of those 300 hours was used in the making of this series, the mind boggles at what must have been left out, not to mention how many people were videoing 24/7.
When I was halfway through the first episode I said aloud, no way can this be sustained over six hours. But every time you think, well that’s it, they need to wrap it up, it turns another corner and you think Whaaat?! I didn’t see that coming. And No WAY did that happen. And She really did that? And Target practice?! Check out that arsenal! Oh my, how wild is that sex – wait, no, it’s not sex, it’s violence… And …Whut – they’ve renamed the town Rajneeshpuram? In Oregon?; Wow, look at that… she’s a murderer? What’s with all this busing in of street people? Why do they need a “lab”? They put WHAT in their food? Bioterrorism? BLENDED BEAVERS!? Not to mention, how much money do these people have?! And it turns again and again and again, defying any and all logic and keeping you transfixed as if you were on whatever it is the Rajneeshees are on.
Watch the official trailer:
Half of Wild Wild Country’s success has to do with hindsight. We’re looking back at what happened there and then, from the perspective of who and where we are now. That was an America only a few years out of the hippy era. They had Reagan, we have Trump. And we hear their story from the perspective of key people who were involved, or observers, and are still alive to tell us about it. The director brothers place each contemporary person (survivor?) in their own environment, mood it up a little, and turn the camera on. We don’t hear the hidden questions but are aware that there is an interviewer. We’re eavesdroppers.
The ultimate focus is on two people in particular: key of course is Rajneesh/The Bhagwan himself, or Osho as he chooses to be known later on, but seen and spoken about from the perspective of others, because he died in 1990, only a few years after the story was at its zenith. But the living kingpin, or queenpin, of it all, is Ma Anand Sheela, who for a long time was his “secretary”, but in fact virtually ruled the cult. A coldly smiling woman who seemingly lacks empathy – you do wonder whether she was psychopathic – she is the most controversial figure by far in a world of eccentrics. So pervasive is the eccentricity that it is the plain, “ordinary” people who stand out. Sheela, as she is most commonly called (as if the Oregonians think it is her first name), agreed to be interviewed and, without her participation, clearly much would have been lost.
The other two compelling presences of our time are Swami Prem Niren, the commune’s lawyer, a highly intelligent and palpably very decent man who trenchantly tells us with searing honesty and some personal pain the story from his own perspective; and an Australian woman who called herself Shanti Padra although in our world she is again Jane Stork. Shanti Padra’s story is an entire drama in itself, as slowly unfolds.
The creators of Wild Wild Country discuss Rajneeshees:
One of Wild Wild Country’s most charming presences is the old boy who was at the time mayor of Antelope – or Rajneeshpuram, as it becomes for some years – the deliciously named John Silvertooth, who just finds everything really funny and is evidently delighted to have lived through it all. We also hear a lot from Jon Bowerman (son of Nike founder Bill Bowerman), along with a crusty old couple who would rather the guru with his fleet of 90 Rolls Royces had stayed in India and let Antelope drift into its dotage in peace and quiet.
But probably the most remarkable thing about a docuseries in which pretty much everything has you shaking your head in disbelief is the video footage. There’s so much of it, and it is so expertly woven to tell us this tale, that it feels almost as if we are living through it. It undoubtedly is a fabulous milestone in the history of documentary making, a benchmark few others will easily attain. But it’s not only all that home video material. Also intertwined is a wealth of news footage of the time, so much of it so revealing of American attitudes to “the other” – and therein lies the most direct link to our own sadly Trumpian times, where the “other” is a Mexican, whether in Mexico or in America, or anyone from a series of African and Middle-Eastern countries the current US administration doesn’t trust, to put it mildly.
Prejudices are laid bare. For so many Americans at the time – and this is not conjecture, it’s plain to see in what is after all archival material – these were people who were “not like us”, and it’s not as if they are painted by the Way brothers as evil people, or as if this is presumed to be a Jim Jones-like cult or likened to Charles Manson’s blood-thirsty crew or the Branch Davidians of the Waco siege. This is not like that, even if there are elements of those dark cults in the weirdness of it all. But few Americans of the time seem to give most of the Bhagwan’s world of followers the benefit of the doubt, yet by the time you’ve got to the end of it all it is palpably clear that many of them were genuinely entranced by this guru and what he purported to stand for: a new and better order, the “New Man” – oh, and sex. It also cannot be denied that there is something “about him”, a demeanour that holds your attention, not least those captivating, almost scary eyes. Eyes which, when he smiles, become surprisingly a-twinkle.
The most difficult thing for the filmmakers must surely have been to ignore any temptation to pass judgement on either side of this story, the original Antelope residents and the greater American public, or the denizens of the ranch-city. But they succeed entirely: we’re left to draw our own conclusions, according to our own prejudices or lack of them. Ultimately, once you’ve absorbed it all, you’ll never be able to look back at the ‘80s again without thinking about this ridiculously mad yet undeniably true story.
Very telling, in the end, is how the Antelopians, now back in charge of their smug little hamlet, are perfectly okay to live alongside the folks who eventually move into the neighbouring ranch. Wave after wave of nice Christian folk. Not those nasty “others”. There you go. DM
Photo: Wild, Wild Country poster
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