Culture

‘Wild Wild Country’ Directors Bust Open ‘The Cult Box’ in New Netflix Documentary Series

Among the mass poisonings, vengeful Christian scolds, naked group psychotherapy, gun running, assassination plots and apocalyptic forecasts, there’s a perfect, comic moment in the new Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country. It occurs when an Antelope area rancher struggles to describe the Rajneeshee facial expression locals called “The Look.” Cut to: a bearded man peering up from a group hug. The bearded man’s eyes are big, distant and unfocused, his smile placid. The turn of his head is unnaturally fluid and slow, like he’s posing for a National Geographic photographer.

The bearded man was a follower—a sannyasin—of Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and part of one of the most ambitious and, eventually, catastrophic intentional communities in American history: the short-lived Rajneeshpuram in Wasco County, Ore. From 1981 to 1985 the well-funded utopian religious organization antagonized locals, eventually drawing the attention of the federal government. But was this sannyasin in a cult? And if he was, what kind of reaction does that designation justify?

In Wild Wild Country, directors Chapman Way and his brother Maclain tell the history of Rajneeshpuram with a combination of archival footage, contemporary news segments and modern interviews. On one side: more than two thousand Rajneeshees and their 64,000 acre utopian enclave known as Big Muddy Ranch. On the other, the citizens of Antelope, Ore., population 40.

Events escalate. Armed residents patrol around Big Muddy, so Rajneeshpuram gets AK-47s. The Rajneeshees buy up the town and turn the local diner vegetarian (replacing bacon with fried bananas). Soon county politics are in play, culminating with the first (and still largest) bioterror attack in modern U.S. history, when Rajneeshee poisoned local salad bars with salmonella. From start to finish, there’s one main narrative propagated by the nightly news, recaptured in Wild Wild Country: a cult is trying to take over.

“Very early on, we were put in the cult box,” Swami Prem Niren, the Bhagwan’s lawyer, told the documentarians. He’s one of several former Rajneeshees narrating Wild Wild Country, the series sometimes jumping from Niren back then, with his ruby suit and Stephen King haircut, to Niren now, cataloging at length the overzealousness of the legal assault launched against Rajneeshpuram’s right to exist.

“They resented it so much, [cult] was a really charged word for them. They felt like they were individualistic,” Maclain told Newsweek. “But at the same time, you could understand why they were put in the cult box a little bit.”

But while some of the Rajneeshees’ traits, like “The Look,” their monochromatic red outfits, or Bhagwan’s 93 Rolls Royces seemed strange or cult-like to the local residents of Antelope and the country at large, Bhagwan’s continued international popularity—he’s become a mainstream spiritual figure in India—raises the question of when a cult is more properly considered a religion. “There are just some core, core fundamental differences of perception,” Maclain says.

netflix-wild-wild-country-bhagwan Bhagwan speaking to his followers in Rajneeshpuram. Netflix

The media were particularly gleeful when they discovered that the daughter of Representative Leo Ryan, assassinated while investigating the Jonestown suicide cult, had joined the Rajneeshees. The connection proved too lurid for TV to ignore. But the irresistible Jonestown comparison obscures more than it reveals about Rajneeshpuram. What separates Wild Wild Country from any other cult story, aside from the spectacular scale of their rise and fall, is the almost complete lack of regretful reappraisal. With one major exception—an inner circle sannyasin who eventually found herself a would-be assassin (twice!)—the former Rajneeshees continue to view Rajneeshpuram as a worthwhile cause.

One of the most forceful defenders of the experiment is Ma Anand Sheela, personal secretary to Bhagwan and the true locus of power in the community. Sheela became infamous for her overzealous press appearances. “I will paint their bulldozers with my blood,” she says to TV cameras when asked about the possibility of Rajneeshpuram being torn down.

She’s also the incandescent center of Wild Wild Country, an absolutely magnetic speaker even as she lies to your face about her involvement in nation-quaking criminal conspiracies. Unlike other subjects in the documentary, Sheela didn’t want to see questions in advance. Watching Wild Wild Country, it’s clear why she doesn’t need to prepare; she has years of on-camera experience and a pugilistic approach to every conversation. (“What can I say? Tough titties,” she says in one interview from the 80s.)

“This was not going to be an interrogation. Sheela is not really willing to play ball in that sense,” Chapman said. “But what we found is by giving her this platform and having her walk us through it is she was indirectly willing to talk about the justifications behind the crimes. Which was what we were more interested in in the first place.”

The Ways spent five days interviewing Sheela, four hours a day. After the first day, which Maclain described as “surface level,” they showed her archival footage, including of Antelope locals describing her and the Rajneeshees. “And she got a fire in her eyes,” Maclain said. “And the next four days was like ‘Sheela vs. the world.’”

bhagwan-sheela-netflix-wild-wild-country Bhagwan and Ma Anand Sheela, before leaving the Pune ashram in India for Oregon and Rajneeshpuram. Netflix

“With every crown comes the guillotine,” Sheela says in Wild Wild Country. “No matter where I go, I will always wear a crown.”

Besieged by the media, drawing the direct scrutiny of the Reagan administration, Rajneeshpuram wasn’t targeted for the many, many crimes members would commit. At least, not at first. Instead, locals, politicians, prosecutors and FBI investigators would always begin with sex or God.

“What is it that we’re worshipping here?” one local resident asks, aghast. A TV preacher calls them Antichrist. The phrase “Keep Oregon Oregon” pops up. Another local makes probably the most accurate appraisal of their initial reaction to Rajneeshpuram: “I just worry about the unknown.”

“Antelope felt like they rolled out the welcome mat for the Rajneeshees and I don't think that's true,” Maclain said. “The community is very distrusting of outsiders. I can only imagine—Chap and I are white guys wearing normal clothes and the fact that we were driving a Prius and got pushback on that—I can only imagine if you wore red head to toe with a mala around your neck.”

John Silvertooth, the affable mayor of Antelope, didn’t dismiss that perspective, but pointed out just how poorly any community would react to strangers with semi-automatic weapons and their own, separate police force harassing longtime residents. Though the town’s inclinations against anything different or weird may have been partly responsible for the rapid escalation of tension between the two sides, it’s hard to deny the creepiness of the armed Rajneesh “Peace Force.” Wild Wild Country makes their wariness understandable.

As Maclain describes it: “Nothing had happened in Antelope for 100 years and then the biggest bomb in the state of Oregon just lands on their front door.”

Still, watching all the powers of the government align against Rajneeshpuram remains jarring. Even after the most infamous incident portrayed in Wild Wild Country, a mass food poisoning tailored to suppress voter turnout (and secure Rajneeshees seats in county government), law enforcement’s maneuvers focus on busting apart Rajneeshpuram by any means possible, rather than catching the responsible parties. We’ve since seen echoes of the government’s any-means-necessary approach, during the Ruby Ridge standoff and the catastrophic conclusion to the Waco siege in the early 90s.

But Wild Wild Country isn’t just about the explosive potential for violence, it’s about situating that violence in a broader context. “We're really right now just in the beginning of figuring out how it plays to audiences,” Maclain says. “We didn't know if people would be like 'This cult is awful and they brought guns into this community and terrorized this small town,' or if they'd be like 'if they would've just been left alone on their ranch they could have had their version of utopia.'”

Wild Wild Country is streaming now on Netflix.

WildWildCountry_Vertical-Main_RGB The poster for 'Wild Wild Country.' Netflix.