Stunned by Netflix's Jaw-Dropping Incredible Doc 'Wild Wild Country'
by Alex Billington
May 2, 2018
I can't stop thinking about this documentary series. I can't stop thinking about the stories in it. I can't stop thinking about all the people in it. Wild Wild Country, directed by Maclain Way and Chapman Way, produced by filmmakers Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass, is an incredible documentary series from Netflix. I am floored, totally blown away, by everything in it. It's not just the crazy story it tells, it's everything else that goes with it - the questions, the implications, the discussions. I don't want to say my life is changed, but there are definitely things I will never forget. There are big ideas, major philosophical / moral implications, so much to talk about. And I can't help but start writing about it, I have to talk about it, I have to get all of these thoughts out of my mind. I have to rave about how phenomenal this series is and how much I loved it.
Before I started watching Wild Wild Country, I had no idea what it was about. Only a tiny hint, if even that, that it was about a cult. I had never heard of this story before (it all occurred before I was even born) and I didn't know anything about what I was about to see. Just like one of those novels you can't stop reading, I couldn't stop watching. I was entranced, totally sucked into this insanely unbelievable, extremely complex, eerily entertaining, alluring story of an Indian guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who tried to establish a small colony in America. This show goes beyond just that story - it brings up captivating discussions about morality, philosophy, government, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, existentialism, privacy, justice, terrorism, abuse of the judicial system, abuse of power, xenophobia, society itself, and so so so much more.
Wild Wild Country is about a famous Indian guru named Rajneesh (later known as Osho), who become a very popular religious figure in India in the 1970s. However, this series is not actually about him - it's about what happens when he tries to move to America and establish a colony for his followers there. His wealth is endless, thanks to his devoted followers throwing money at him, and so he decides to buy a massive ranch in the middle of nowhere Oregon (specifically Wasco County - near the tiny town of Antelope). What begins as a simple story, turns into something so much more deeper and complex, because this series presents both sides of the story objectively - from the local townspeople (and eventually the US government) who wanted them out when their town was suddenly taken over, and also from the side of the "Rajneeshees", featuring remarkably honest interviews with a few of the top people who worked for the holy man and ran his ranch.
What I love about this documentary in particular is the way it precariously, perfectly balances both sides. At first, you think hey, this is a bad cult and they're going wild taking over this land and trying to turn it into a debaucherous city. Kick them out! Then as it goes on, you start to realize, hey maybe they actually should be allowed to do this - freedom of religion, right? And then it goes back and forth constantly, riding such a fine line - the government gets pissed off and does some very scary, potentially illegal things, just because they don't like them. Are they being too harsh? Maybe. Every single person they interview from both sides gives genuinely believable explanations and very compelling reasons for what they were doing and how they each responded, even if it did go too far. It's hard to argue with any of them, really, and this intricate complexity is what makes it so deeply fascinating to watch. If you're watching this and only seeing one side, then you're not open-minded and missing the point, and should consider more carefully what's happening to everyone.
Wild Wild Country would not work as well as it does if it didn't contain multiple interviews filmed in recent years with all of the people involved, telling their story of what happened. The 30+ years of time since then has allowed them to develop a completely different perspective, and a chance to reflect on what happened, and this adds a whole other layer of incredible implications. Some of the people they talk to seem to have a completely different feeling about what they did - they look back on it now with this clarity of, almost, that they were just acting without thinking. They just did. And now that they have time to think, they don't say oh this was so bad, I was terrible, they've come to an even greater understanding about our choices, actions, and the decisions we make. How we get caught up in things. This adds even more complexity on top of the original story itself and it's an important part of what makes this documentary so brilliant and enchanting.
I will very boldly (and dangerously) say that Ma Anand Sheela, who worked directly for the Bhagwan, is one of the most fascinating humans I have ever seen in my entire life. And I'm talking about out of everyone I have ever heard of or met before, between scientists and writers and philosophers and innovators, she is up there. To only state that she is evil and did terrible things misses the point. And this would be the most reasonable conclusion if they only showed her story and told us about her using archival footage. But the recent interview she gives that is referenced throughout the series proves that she is much more complex than any of us. She knows exactly what she did, and she knows why she did it. Maybe she doesn't have any empathy, sure, but I don't entirely believe this. I believe that her ability to reflect upon and be aware of what happened makes her even more fascinating than anyone else in this - more than Osho / Rajneesh himself.
I really could go on and on about Sheela. Yes, she did poison an entire town and abuse her power, but also, did you listen to what she says? It's the same intense passion that drives many people, the same desire for salvation and the same lust for power and the same love for a leader. I was constantly in awe of what she was saying and how she was processing her experience and recalling her story now. It seemed to clash with the archival footage, but then she would say something that would explain it, and it would all make sense. The depth and the complexity to this person is beyond me. It still blows my mind, I can't stop thinking about it. I almost want to meet her, just to have a discussion with her, ask her more questions to get a sense of how she rationalized everything then, and how she rationalizes it now. I have so much I want to ask. What would she say at this age now to herself back then, if she had the chance? Would it even change anything anyway?
#WildWildCountry is crazy bc one second you think Sheela is an icon and the next she’s poisoning a town and one minute you’re lowkey sympathizing with the cult and you all of a sudden think you’re part of the cult and the next you realize you have no moral compass. pls watch pic.twitter.com/8lXqtf47gT
— Gina ☕️✌🏻 (@ginakkelley) April 6, 2018
Beyond the main story of the Rajneeshees moving into Oregon, and the power struggle and everything else, there's also the still very fascinating discussion about cults. I always have the same thought in my mind when I hear about/learn about cults - why do so many intelligent people get caught up in something so very crazy and over-the-top? How do such reasonable, rational people go overboard with all of this, and fall in love with an Indian man with a long beard? What do they tell themselves, how do they explain it in their own minds? How do they respond to what is happening? I could ask questions for days, because while there are answers, I'm sure, it's not that I want answers and then that's it. I like to dwell on everything. What I am amazed by is how many great questions this series brings up, and how the presentation of the story makes me wonder about all this. Not just about cults, but about people, and life, and government, and everything.
On top of that, there's the discussion of freedom. America was, supposedly, founded on an idea of religious freedom - a group of people from England wanted to escape persecution there and start a new colony where they could be free to practice whatever religion they wanted. It's in the constitution. So why, then, are we so scared when a new religion pops up and wants to establish a colony? Why are so we scared by open minded thinking, free love, communal living? On one hand, the local townspeople do come across as conservatives unhappy with anything disrupting their pre-established farm lives. On the other hand, they do have a point. And when/how does a new religion become a cult? Are they one and the same (hint, hint - yes). But still, why aren't they allowed to do what they want, who are we to say they're bad? Again, questions I don't have answers to, but this is just a tiny bit of what this series brings up in its presentation of this fascinating story.
I could go on and on about Wild Wild Country, but it's just something you have to experience for yourself. You need to go in with an open mind, and ability to hear both sides of the story, and consider everything. It's the epitome of the idea that our world is not black and white - it's a massively complex world where good and bad can be debated. In an interview with Vulture, the filmmakers admit: "I still wake up in the middle of the night going, 'Yeah, but this group did this,' and then, 'Wait, but then they did this,' And I teeter back and forth from thinking one group's right, one group’s wrong, to both groups are wrong, maybe both groups are right. It almost changes on a daily basis still, even working on this four years later." Once you see this series, you'll understand, and you won't ever be able to reach a conclusion on either side. It will engage and provoke your mind for the rest of your life. Possibly. And it's not the answers that make a difference, it's the questions it raises and all the discussions it encourages, and the bold implications that come from this story.
When I first started watching Wild Wild Country, I was not expecting to discover something so profound, so thoughtfully presented, so deeply complex, and yet it's all of this and so much more. And the most I can do is in turn talk about some of the ways it affected me, and some of the thoughts that came up in my mind. Now I want to know more about the Bhagwan and his teachings, now I want to know more about the people they interview, now I want to go find and talk with Sheela, now I want to know more about the laws that the government used to kick them out, now I want to learn about how cults operate and seduce followers. We live in such a mesmerizing, incredibly complex world full of different people - and there are so many stories to be told, so much happening all around us. What an honor to get a glimpse into this world of religion and government, and to learn so wonderfully about this unbelievable, but entirely true story in America's past.