[Before there was Tiger King, there was Wild Wild Country - the compelling docuseries that took Netflix by storm. In "honor" of the pandemic, I'm revisiting the show, as well as the interview with the project's co-directors. Check out my review, plus the companion interview. And stay safe & well! - JZ, April 2021]
*I had the honor of interviewing co-directors Chapman and Maclain Way about the making of "Wild Wild Country." To learn about how they researched this massive project, what it was like spending time in the presence of Ma Anand Sheela, meeting the Duplass brothers, and more, click here.
Attempted murder. Immigration fraud. A sex cult. Election tampering. The rumored act of grinding up live beavers in order to poison a town’s water supply?! No – it’s not a dystopian thriller coming to theaters near you. This the true story of the clash between Rashneeshees and citizens from the small town of Antelope, Oregon – a bizarrely compelling and terrifying moment in the state’s history that captured the nation.
Wild Wild Country covers one of the most outlandish and controversial times in Oregon’s, and possibly the United States’, history – the years when Bhagwan Shree Rashneesh and his dedicated followers took over the small town of Antelope. (The population hovered around 100 at one point, and is counted at 48 as of 2016.) What followed was an epic struggle as the supposedly peaceful religious cult/sect clashed with conservative ranchers over land use that escalated into accusations of immigration fraud, bioterrorism, attempted murder, and much, much more.
The epic, twisted tale has been deftly distilled into a six-part docuseries (currently available exclusively on Netflix) by directors Chapman and Maclain Way. The brothers’ first foray into documentary filmmaking was the well-regarded The Battered Bastards of Baseball – another Oregon-based tale about the wild and wooly team of the 1970’s Portland Mavericks. To say that Wild Wild Country is a stunning follow-up is an understatement. The episodes (produced by another adored brother team, Mark and Jay Duplass) are wall to wall bonkers, thanks in large part to, of all things, The Oregon Historical Society. The break came to the brothers, who were following up on their Battered Bastards footage, when a historical society employee mentioned they had hundreds of hours of tape on the Rashneesh debacle and proceeded to fill them in on the crazy event. Chapman and Maclain were quick to realize they had a goldmine of unprecedented footage on their hands and moved forward in researching the story that bloomed into this exceptional project.
The Rajneesh culture did not start out as evil. Bhagwan (later known as Osho) was a fairly well-regarded spiritual leader in India until he ultimately wore out his welcome and began to search for a new home in which to teach his followers (sannyasins). He put his trusted secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, on the task and, after an exhaustive search of America, she set upon a remote parcel of land outside of Antelope, Oregon. It was there that Sheela guided a massive expedition, creating a self-sufficient dwelling out of the former desert land. To understand the scope of this, know that the landscape was basically uninhabitable and the Rajneeshees transformed it into a small city that included their own sewer system, electricity, clothing store, and sustainable farming area. They even managed to build their own river – a Herculean task driven by the strong desire to cohabit as a family in the wilderness. It could’ve been a modern guide of how to live in harmony with nature, had it not fallen into complete disarray.
Bhagwan arrived at the intentional community, named Rajneeshpuram, in the 1980’s as it was nearing completion, to the elation of his hardworking sannyasins. They proceeded to exalt in his teachings – a blend of Buddhism, meditation, prayer, primal scream therapy, and lots of free love. Trouble began when the citizens of Antelope grew concerned, then alarmed, over the perceived goings-on with their new neighbors. Calls to government officials largely went ignored until their cause caught the eye of Nike cofounder Bill Bowerman, State Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer, and, ultimately the FBI.
1000 Friends of Oregon is, ironically, what inadvertently activated a cavalcade of terror. The goal of the do-good group, founded by Bowerman, was to set a precedent for land use rights in order to protect the state they loved. They took aim at Rajneeshpuram, hoping to quell the ever expanding sect’s hold on the property. What they didn’t count on was Sheela – Bhagwan’s personal bulldog, who would stop at nothing to protect their charges. Sheela realized they needed to legitimize their community and set her sights on taking over Antelope, a small hamlet already recognized by the state. She succeeded, but didn’t stop there and set out to rule Wasco County. Despite the Rajneesh mission statement, their tactics were far from peaceful. The disciples carried out harassment of Antelope citizens, as well as the largest bioterrorist attack in U.S. history, with the food poisoning of 700+ citizens in The Dalles (located in Wasco County) in an attempt to secure a hotly-debated election. (This is not to say that the Antelope people were wholly innocent, as they engaged in their own forms of harassment. Tensions ran high on both sides, and the film does a fantastic job of presenting a balanced perspective of the Rajneeshees and Oregonians.)
Sheela emerges as one of the story’s most compelling characters. (As a woman, I was blown away to see such a driven female helm such a massive undertaking. As a person, I was overwhelmed watching a genius and possible stone-cold sociopath.) When Bhagwan takes a years-long vow of silence, it is Sheela that leads in his stead. It’s safe to say this is as much her story as his. Thanks to the astounding amount of original footage, the viewer is treated to both past and present Sheela – with hours of action during her reign at Rajneeshpuram combined with the subdued elderly lady who now resides in Switzerland and runs a home for the elderly and mentally disabled. (Bhagwan/Osho passed in 1990, but his dedicated lawyer, Swami Prem Niren, is also interviewed at length by the Way brothers and provides additional insight into what made the leader tick.)
Things ultimately devolve to the point of chaos, with Sheela and a close group of confidents fleeing the commune in broad daylight, to the rage of Bhagwan. It is here where he breaks his silence – not to comfort his distressed followers, but to exact revenge on Sheela. And it’s this hubris that is his ultimate downfall, for in trying to get his former secretary convicted of numerous crimes, he unwittingly opens the doors of his haven to the FBI and is eventually forced to leave the country for it.
The layers of deceit, crime, sex, devotion, betrayal, love, and loss are worthy of a soap opera. The fact that it’s all truewill bend your mind. It’s impossible to cover the expanse of it here; just trust that it’s worth your time to learn about this astounding piece of history. Add this to your binge-watch list asap.
Wild Wild Country is the darkly evocative cautionary tale of what happens when people feel threatened, and the lengths they’ll go to protect what they love. I can’t recommend this enough – it’s a must-see.