– By Tyler Carlos –
Growing up, we all study American history at some point during our education. We learn about things like George Washington, the Boston Tea Party, and World War II. But throughout history, there are also those events that seem to shake the very foundation of what this country is all about, and somehow, we never learn about them. One of these cases is that of the Eastern Mysticism cult, known as the Rajneeshees, and the utopian city they tried to build in central Oregon that led to some of the largest scandals in American history. Produced by Duplass Brothers Productions (Tangerine, The Skeleton Twins), the Netflix Original Series Wild Wild Country delves deeply into this fascinating part of American history.
The Rajneeshee cult was run by a very prominent Indian guru named Baghwan Shree Rajneesh. Baghwan believed that the potential for mental and spiritual enlightenment was within each person. He believed that people should be free of the stipulations of government and religion, for only then could they begin to embrace true freedom, and it was his goal in life to enlighten those around him. His followers became known as “Rajneeshees.” Based in India, the group grew into the thousands as people from all over the world came to study under Baghwan.
In the early 1980’s, when the numbers grew too large for the group to remain in India, the Rajneeshees relocated to a ranch in central Oregon, near the 40-person town of Antelope. Due to Baghwan’s popularity, the cult had hundreds of thousands of dollars at its disposal. On this ranch, the Rajneeshees built their own utopian city, known as Rajneeshpuram, where they expected to live in – what they believed– was the perfect society.
But all was not perfect. The citizens of Antelope, OR, did not take to the Rajneeshees. The majority of the town was comprised of older, mostly retired couples that wanted to live their rest of their lives in peace and quiet. They were primarily conservative Christians, and were afraid that the Rajneeshees were a dangerous sex cult.
As the years went by, the hostility between Rajneeshpuram and Antelope escalated out of control. The Rajneeshees armed themselves due to threats, leading to a highly militarized group of people that would kill if instructed to do so. The citizens of Antelope tried to discorporate to get rid of the Rajneeshees. The hostility led to the largest mass poisoning and one of the largest manhunts in American history. Suddenly, what was once a blank spot on the map became the central focus of the FBI and the American government.
The documentary follows several people, all of them in some way connected with the events that took place at Rajneeshpuram. The documentarians were able to track down some of the most important followers of Baghwan (Baghwan died in 1990), including a former mayor of Rajneeshpuram and the former personal secretary of Baghwan. Other people were the residents of Antelope at the time of the Rajneeshee “invasion.” Lastly, they managed to track down the FBI agents that worked on the Rajneeshee cases, which varied from illegal immigration to poisoning. There isn’t a separate narrator. The people that were actually there are the narrators. We get the story through their eyes.
What I love most about this varied “cast” is that it offers a very unbiased view of the events surrounding Rajneeshpuram. There are those that were on the ranch speak about the ranch as they knew it, and they explain both the good and the bad. In fact, if there is any group of people that seem biased, it is the people of Antelope, and that is because they have no other way, really, to feel. And lastly, the government agents really just state the facts the way that they saw them. The watchers are able to see the story from all angles, unlike some other documentaries like Making a Murderer, which clearly has a bias in favor of Steven Avery. Wild Wild Country shows the story the way both sides saw it, and that is the way this story needed to be told.
Perhaps the most interesting person in the entire series is a woman named Ma Anand Sheela, who was the personal secretary to Baghwan and was responsible for most of the most notable scandals surrounding the Rajneeshees. I bring her up specifically because her account of what happened brings the entire documentary to a whole new level. It’s a testament to the filmmakers that they were able to find her, as she has tried to remain off the radar since the events of Rajneeshpuram. Her story is just as fascinating as the story behind the community, and the filmmakers allow us to make our own assumptions about her. She is a complicated person with a complicated story, and the documentary is all the better because of it.
Shifting more to the informational side of the documentary, one thing to mention is that Wild Wild Country does a superb job of explaining exactly what the beliefs of this cult is and the rituals that are involved. Just as it would be important for a film or documentary to properly explain the principles and rituals of the Catholic faith, this was an element of the series that had to be done correctly. The first episode of the series lays it out for you, showing the history of the Rajneeshee belief and how Baghwan became the leader he eventually became. The rituals are both shown and explained in a way that makes sense and allows the viewers to simply understand the why, what, and how of Rajneeshee rituals.
I would like to comment on one element of the documentary that I believe could have been improved upon. The timing and pacing of the series is a bit disconcerting. Things happen quickly in this story, and the documentarians do not tell us the dates or timeline of some events as they happen. It would have helped to have a timeline or dates available for the news clips or dates of some of the significant events. It by no means hurts the impact of the story, but it would have been just an extra helpful element.
Lastly, the documentarians present the information in a way that is enthralling and surprising, just like it would be done in a fiction series. I found myself reacting at big twists just as I would while watching suspenseful dramas. At the end of each episode, I just had to know what happened. Documentaries, at least in my experience, rarely have this effect. Documentaries present information. Perhaps it is simply the fact that the information in this documentary is just so shocking, but I believe it is beyond that.
Overall, Wild Wild Country is a little bit of history that is utterly fascinating. A story with twists and turns around every corner told from the people that actually experienced it…what more could you want? If you haven’t taken a look at this Netflix documentary series, you don’t know what you’re missing. But I offer this warning…once you start, you won’t be able to stop.
About the Author
Tyler Carlos is a proud nerd originally from Baton Rouge, LA. He completed his undergraduate in Mass Communication from Louisiana State University, and graduated from JPCatholic’s MBA in Film Producing in 2016. In his off time, he enjoys Crossfit, escape rooms, and watching Gotham and This Is Us. His ultimate goal in life is to learn how to fly.