Wild Wild Country (2018, Netflix)
Directed by Maclain and Chapman Way
In 1981 a group of strangers arrived in the barely-there small town of Antelope, Oregon. These were the Sannyasins, followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian guru who was seeking a site for his new collective commune. They purchased 64,000-acre ranch where they began Rajneeshpuram, their new home. While the Bhagwan stuck close to his vow of silence, his personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela took the lead on being the public face. The residents of Antelope became distrusting of the Sannyasins as a result of their liberal sex practices and cult-ish nature. Things got increasingly worse with both sides gathering up weapons and the Sannyasins seeking to influence local county politics no matter the price.
Wild Wild Country begins a little odd, but seemingly harmless on the Sannyasin side of things. They are promoting a multi-cultural, self-actualizing ideology and want a place to quietly do their thing. The residents of Antelope are very much coming from a Depression-era mindset of American politics and religion, so their critiques are colored by a strongly xenophobic viewpoint. The sex practices of the Sannyasins are totally polyamorous and would definitely seem “scary” and “frightening” to these very sedate people. It’s not the sexuality of the cult that makes them truly dangerous.
About the middle of the series is when the more significant twists occur. We learn about the existence of a medical laboratory hidden in a nondescript trailer somewhere on the edges of the property. This also where we learn that Sheela has begun to form her own inner circle within the commune, but the full extent to what this group gets up to is meted out over a series of episodes. What they did his unquestionably criminal and potentially homicidal. There are early hints that Sheela and the Bhagwan are not being honest about the intent of their religion, starting with the sudden flight from India. The series will circle back to that bit of information near the end and reveal a broader context beyond that the Bhagwan just decided to start a commune in Oregon.
Wild Wild Country manages to shed some light on the hypocrisy of our nation’s freedom of religion and speech laws. Wasco County authorities are very aggressive with the moves they make against Rajneeshpuram and seek out every possible avenue to obstruct and impede the Sannyasins. Sheela points out that the United States is not averse to theocratic governments, citing the Mormon authority that controls Salt Lake City and the Amish communities that exist in the Eastern United States with seemingly little interference from the law. It is tough to argue against her, in theory, however when a mysterious salmonella outbreak hits Wasco County without a natural pattern of spreading and Sannyasins begin toting AK-47s it becomes much harder to support her views.
Directors Maclain and Chapman Way use archive footage from Rajneeshpuram as well as local and national news reports to present the story of the Sannyasins. Framing and contextualizing this are camera-facing interviews with the members of the commune, residents of Antelope, and various legal authorities that were part of the investigation. The style of presentation is very reminiscent of Errol Morris’ work. I was particularly reminded of things like the Fog of War and his criminally underrated Bravo series from the early 2000s, First Person. There are not the reenactment portions of Morris’ work like in The Thin Blue Line though. Furthermore, explicit authorial voice, such as in Michael Moore’s work in absent. It is still there in the manner the Ways choose to delineate information, but those choices orbit around creating the sense of serialized intrigue Netflix expects in its programming. This cliffhanger, teasing method of documentary work serves to encourage the viewer to binge, but I intentionally chose to portion out Wild Wild Country to better absorb its individual parts.
Wild Wild Country doesn’t seek to make a final judgment on Rajneeshpuram or even Sheela, who could quickly be turned into the central villain. It’s when the Bhagwan finally begins to speak again that we see the actual core of evil behind this deceptively peaceful endeavor. He quickly moves from being a guru to a man out for revenge. In the end, we are left to decide if this was a good idea turned evil by the environment the Sannyasins chose to inhabit or if their intentions were even pure in the first place.