So many things boggle the mind about Netflix’s six-part documentary Wild, Wild Country, it’s hard to know where to begin. Produced by Jay and Mark Duplass, the series follows an Indian guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (or Osho) and his many devout followers as they take over a small Oregonian town named Antelope, rename the place “Rajneeshpuram” and generally wreak havoc on everything they touch for four explosive years. Eventually, the colony implodes under the strain of internal conflict and scandal, which leads us to the obscure cultural artifact that we are only now collectively uncovering. Seriously, what the hell was going on in this country in the early 1980s and how is this the first anyone from my generation is hearing of it?
Wild, Wild Country tells its story through newsreels of the time, inside footage from within the commune and through extensive interviews with players on all sides. (Not since 2006’s Jesus Camp have I seen documentarians toe the line between two ideologies so deftly.) We begin in India, when Osho and a select few followers — mostly European and American tourists looking to buy spirituality — decide to resettle in America. Beware a gang of meditators who also know how to make money. No good can come of it.
The film’s interview subjects include, but are not limited to: Straight-shooting townspeople in overalls who don’t like hippies stomping through their town, some of the commune’s original founders and enthusiastic lawyers on both sides. Most provocative of all, we have Osho’s personal secretary and the commune’s maniacal mastermind, Ma Anand Sheela. She comes off as equal parts villainous and fierce, both in footage from the time and in her present-day, unapologetic interview as a formidable woman in her 60s. As Osho’s personal spokesman during the clan’s formative years, we see Sheela oscillate methodically from cunning manipulation to seemingly genuine compassion for her master. I think we’re meant to disapprove of her overall, but isn’t it just like a cult leader to let a powerful woman do all the work and then take the fall? I couldn’t help admiring Sheela’s unwavering strength of character throughout, even if she did exploit 3,500 homeless people over a frenzied three weeks and mastermind a plot to poison Oregonian townspeople with salmonella.
Oh, and what about the parallels between Rajneeshpuram and our current political climate? It’s true enough that the natives’ small-town, traditional ideology clashed irreconcilably with the free-love intellectualism of the sannyasins; just like how we can’t talk to each other today, right? This observation mostly bores me. I am much more fascinated by the red people’s blind devotion to a bland leader, how efficiently they organized, and what little time it took for simple and beautiful ideas to take such dark and twisted turns toward the corrupt.
I joined a cult once, long story: A boyfriend talked me into attending a kind of Scientology-lite self-help pyramid scheme called the Landmark Forum that I narrowly escaped (two long weekends and $700 later). From this I learned an important life lesson. Whenever people begin to ambitiously organize around impossibly lofty ideals, forget about it. Everything takes money to sustain itself, and therein always lies the crux.
It’s particularly bizarre and absurd to watch the Rajneeshans worship their leader, who remains ominous and mostly in silence throughout (save for a brief stint on the talk show circuit to call his faithful servant a bitch). Everyone’s talking about what a special man Osho is, but pardon me, that’s idiotic. Peace and love require no master orany kind of dress code and, really, how special can one man be?