The most fascinating thing about Wild Wild Country, the new Netflix Docu series, is how it puts us in a dilemma over which ‘side’ we should feel for – the Rajneeshis, or the residents of Antelope, Oregon – and screws with it.
Indian spiritual guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his followers, have left India, and bought acres of land in Antelope, which they are transforming into the new town of Rajneeshpuram. The country folk aren’t pleased with the new neighbours. A rancher and his wife tells us about the “sleepy little old town where everybody knew everybody else and everybody got along”. It comprises working people who want to retire peacefully.
John Silvertooth, the mayor of Antelope, recalls the night he saw a stranger in the neighbourhood, warning him of how it’s all going to change: the Rajneeshis are coming, and they will soon take over. We see old news footage dubbing it the biggest immigration scam in American history, we hear of mass poisoning, bio-terrorism. How evil! Bunch of psychos on drugs. In grainy home video footage from the 80s, we get a glimpse of the Bhagwan’s chief secretary: Ma Anand Sheela. Smartly dressed, and sporting a bob-cut, she comes across like a gangster’s moll.
The fascinating part is not that Wild Wild Country makes us empathise for both sides – it is expected of “good cinema” to show us truth as more complex than black and white. The fascinating part is that it achieves this in a seemingly counter-productive way: One moment, if we are with the Antelopians, next moment we are hating them.
Wild Wild Country begins with a tone that is close to crime shows about blood-curdling murder cases, narrated by survivors and witnesses, and then it pulls out the first of its trump cards. We are introduced to Sheela in her present day avatar, who now lives in Switzerland. With her shawl, grey hair and golden rimmed glasses, she could be a school principal, or a grandmother. But the fire still burns: “A crown comes with a guillotine…” says her opening voiceover. She will tell her own story, make references to Fellini, say “tough titties” in a news interview, and over the course of six episodes will become a crowd favourite. We meet Jane Stork, a pleasant old woman in a grey cardigan talking to us from the library of her home, formerly known as Ma Shanti B. We meet Swamy Prem Niren, Bhagwan’s Personal Attorney, who sits in his attic workstation, and has an author-like air about him. It’s easy to like him. They tell us about the heady days of Rajneeshpuram: the early phase in Pune, and why they decided to move to a ranch in America, how they built their Utopian society brick by brick. Suddenly, we are wondering, ‘What seems to be the fault with the Rajneeshis?’: An audacious bunch of individuals who want to change the world with free-love and farming, and who are doing something about it — apparently, drugs was prohibited. They are like the best of Flower Power and Coca Cola. Before we’ve realised, this has become a story of the innate American Fear of the Other.
But there’s a twist around the corner (SPOILERS AHEAD), of the kind which would have been unbelievable if not true. The Rajneeshis are accused of poisoning the people of Oregon by putting salmonella in salad bars. There are more to come. This constant seesawing of who we are ought to sympathise with goes on.
The Way Brothers — who I did a brief interview with on the phone — say that they wanted to create this effect on the viewer. “It was not just to create this sense of tension and intrigue in the viewer, but the fact that this was really a story of two sides,” says Maclain.
“These weren’t brainwashed cult members, the ones we met were highly intelligent and successful people who’d just gotten burnt out and joined this movement for meditation and love. They were fully consenting adults who knew exactly what they were doing,” Chapman says in another interview. On the contrary, “the Antelopians weren’t this one-dimensional stereotype, as a bunch of old bigots and racists. “When we went there, there were all kinds of people: libertarians, extremists, anarchists, conservatives. What tied them together was this little community, which they loved being a part of even though they were all different.”
We basically make you see how they saw the events. Some Talking Heads are telling the truth, some are not telling the truth. For us, we were just interested in capturing their perception in a judgement free way,” says Maclain.
Instead of trying to factually investigate the story — it’s a shut case now, and the facts are all there in the public domain — the Ways try to find the truth of the human experience. “We basically make you see how they saw the events. Some Talking Heads are telling the truth, some are not telling the truth. For us, we are just interested in capturing their perception in a judgement free way,” says Maclain.
The score — composed by the third brother Brocker Way — invites us to get along the character’s journey: sentimental when Sheela recalls the time Bhagwan singled her out as the chosen one; chilly, when we learn about the cold, calculated crimes from the Antelopians.
Maclain says while they stayed true to the chronology of the events as they unfolded, they took “leeways” and made choices to find that “cliffhanger” for every episode. “We knew we needed 5-6 hour canvas to tell the story, and we didn’t want the audience to stop watching after one episode. You learn about a set of events from one point of view, and another set of events from a whole different point of view, and for the third time it is clarified what it was really,” he says.
This “binge-worthy” quality of Wild Wild Country – which had premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January this year – makes it a part of a new wave of True Crime Docu series that are also addictively entertaining. Netflix’s own Making a Murderer, which was about the wrongful acquittal of Steven Avery on charges of rape. Two mini-series’ made on OJ Simpson case, a former celebrity footballer who murdered his wife and her friend — OJ: Made in America won the Academy award in 2017. A strange phenomenon for documentaries, if you think about it, until a few years back, but suddenly completely normal in the age of streaming. Maclain, who says they started working on their series before Making a Murderer (2015), says that it was HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2014) — in which the film’s titular subject, the scion of a New York real estate tycoon, famously confessed on camera of murdering his wife and two other people — that “cracked open the genre.”
As in Wild Wild Country, the Way brothers had made the similarly stranger-than-fiction documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball for Netflix in 2014 – the story of a ragtag minor league baseball team from the 70s. Chapman wanted to make Wild Wild Country after they found 300 hours of footage in the Oregon Historical Society and their “minds exploded”. They knew the story needed to be told in a longer format; and the only thing the Americans seem to remember about Osho (a name he adopted in his last years), says Maclain, is that he had 93 Rolls Royces. So they needed to tell what happened before and after the Rajneeshpuram episode.
The footage is astonishing — from the rockstar hysteria surrounding Rajneesh, to the stormtrooper-like gunmen protecting the commune, to a creepy TV interview of Rajneesh, to Sheela playing with a bird from inside the prison in Germany. The Ways have carved a story out of a sea of footage whose sum is bigger than its parts, resonating with themes that are both personal and political. A jilted lover and a modern day mystique. Migration, the dark ripple effects of the 60s counterculture movement, Xenophobia, and the myth of America as a free country.