If you’re into documentaries about things that are so bizarre they couldn’t possibly be real, then you need to do yourself a favour and watch Netflix’s Wild Wild Country right now.
The six part series was released on Netflix last month, and covers the almost-fantastical attempt by Indian spiritual leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh to create a utopian city in Oregon. An archivist from the Oregon Historical Society, according to TIME, provided directors Maclain and Chapman Way with hundreds of hours of footage, making it possible to outline the bizarre and unbelievable events that followed.
Facing prosecution for tax fraud, smuggling and other untoward behaviour from Indian authorities, Bhagwan and his followers decided to relocate to the tiny town of Antelope, Oregon, which had only a handful of residents, mostly retirees. They just wanted to be alone, and yet in 1981, a band of red and maroon/wearing followers overtook a massive ranch – over 64,000 acres – nearby.
The story then unfolds as a classic tale of neighbourly conflict: residents who grew increasingly wary – particularly given Jonestown, which was very fresh in the American consciousness at the time – about the behaviour and reactions of the Rajneeshees, and how the Rajneeshees responded to the hostility and perceived persecution as they tried to build a city in the desert.
As rumours buzzed around town about the group (its members come from 17 countries and include the daughter of Congressman Leo J. Ryan, who was killed at Jonestown), curious Antelope residents attended a get-acquainted party. They were given assurances that the Rajneeshies had little more in mind than to transform the overgrazed spread into an oasis of wheat and barley. “We thought they were a friendly bunch,” Mayor Margaret Hill recalls. “Lots of food, lots of free booze—it was a great party.”
The crux of the Netflix series relies on direct interviews from two sides: some of the residents who lived through the rise and fall of the Rajneeshpuram commune, and three key figures from the commune itself. Ma Anand Sheela – who described herself as the personal secretary to Bhagwan, but in reality functioned like a chief of staff – dominates these interviews, and for good reason.
In the opening minutes, news reports outline attempts to extradite Sheela from Germany to the United States. There’s fraud charges. Residents described her as someone who would remove anyone in their path.
We’re then introduced to Sheela in her new home, in Switzerland.
“With every crown comes the guillotine, without a guillotine you cannot wear the crown,” she says off-camera. “The world has assassinated me and my character so often, I have nothing to lose.”
And it’s from that point that Wild Wild Country‘s true protagonists appear: Sheela and the commune, versus the residents.
The episodes intersperse interview footage with archived video from news reports and elsewhere, outlying the construction of the commune and the various attempts to block its growth. As the stakes get higher, the tactics become increasingly malevolent.
Legal conflict punctuates a lot of the series’ conflict: initially, Rajneeshpuram tried to incorporate as a city. After that failed, they attempted a democratic takeover of Antelope to prevent further persecution. Concerned for their own well being, the town responded by trying to disincorporate – a process that would have dissolved Antelope entirely.
Amongst all of this, the commune grew exponentially. It’s one of the series’ weakest points – the timeline of how fast Rajneeshpuram grew is sometimes unclear – but it’s also staggering that in the space of a year, a ranch transformed from an empty lot to a city with a dam, housing, schools, banks, an airstrip, irrigated farmland, plans for solar power, and had the local Wasco County approved, a hospital.
That expansion was fuelled by Sheela’s ruthlessness and force of will, which comes across instantly from Wild Wild Country’s first interview. And as much as Sheela is a sympathetic figure to her actions – she later pleaded guilty to attempted assassination – her obsession and refusal to back down makes for utterly compelling television.
Each episode runs for a full hour, although it’s an easy watch with the blend of archived news footage and the narrative direction given by the interviews from Sheela, residents, and the insight in particular provided by Jane Stork (who wrote a book of her own) and Bhagwan’s personal attorney, Philip Toelkes.
The Rajneesh religion itself was combination of Eastern religious philosophies, including open attitude to sexuality, but with an appreciation for capitalism. “In the pase communes have died because of this stupid idea that you should not create wealth,” Bhagwan says in the first episode.
But the series doesn’t really investigate that aspect of the religion, or much of its teachings at all. That’s not the maindraw card of the series though: this is a David vs Goliath battle, a battle of how a small town moved to prevent itself from being subsumed by religious invaders.
Similarly, that was the same battle facing the Rajneeshees. Blocked at every turn, restricted by government, the cult ended up forming its own police force and attempting to insert itself into local and state government to give itself the representation and protection necessary to survive. But as the stakes rose, resulting in investigations from state attorney generals, the Rajneeshees’ would later embark on what would become the biggest poisoning case in the history of the United States.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Wild Wild Country is fascinating television. Early on, there’s footage of an official remarking that someone would one day write a book about the events in Antelope, Oregon. “I will guarantee you when that book comes out, the people will read it will say it’s fiction.”
The Oregonian back in 2011 eventually posted a five part series after gaining access to government files and new interviewees to help draw a line under the remarkable saga that was the Rajneeshpuram commune. But do yourself a favour: watch Wild Wild Country first, then brush up on the history.