The main response I hear to the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country is disbelief that the events depicted in the show actually took place (in America, no less). Jen Chaney, from Vulture, takes a stab at encapsulating the insanity.
It is a story that involves religion, free love, land use disputes, one of the co-founders of Nike, an exalted guru, abuse of power, arson, the wife of one of the producers of The Godfather, attempted murder, mass poisoning, an obsession with Rolls-Royces, the homeless, election battles, and one extremely bizarre anecdote about attempting to contaminate a town’s water supply using blended beaver parts. That is only the tip of the iceberg. “Someone will write a book about this,” an Oregon official says in footage that appears in episode one, “and I will guarantee you when that book comes out, people will say that it’s fiction.” In the ’80s, he couldn’t have imagined Netflix, or anticipated a docuseries like this one.
It’s easy to see why a show including all of those elements would make for incredibly compelling television. The series is much more than mere spectacle, though. The stories woven within the broader narrative are so human, simultaneously relatable and repulsive. The brothers Way, makers of the documentary, weave a tale that declines to take sides in what amounted to a war between a free love fringe religious group and their small town mom and apple pie Oregonian neighbors. Each of the sides have their talking heads that are allowed plenty of screen time to comment on the various events that took place when Baghwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers moved onto a 60,000 acre ranch next to rural Antelope, OR. The tales they tell drip with sadness, fear, happiness, elation, betrayal, naivety, love, hate, optimism and disappointment.
As a Christian, it’s hard for me to relate to a group who dresses in one color, follows a guru whose name (Baghwan) is god in Hindi and wear malas (necklaces that contain a picture of the guru). When they line up to greet the Rolls Royce caravan of Rajneesh with tears of joy, it looks a lot like worship, reminiscent of yet contrasting with the Palm Sunday story of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and being met with enthusiastic followers waving palms. The purposeful displays of opulence that the guru engages in run counter to the teachings of most religions about how spiritual leaders are supposed to live. When people in both the East and the West picture a spiritual leader, we see asceticism the kind of which was eschewed by Rajneesh. Also troublesome is the free love version of human sexuality to which the group subscribed. Its opposition to traditional marriage and the aspirational narcissism of a relentless pursuit for individual enlightenment raises serious concerns about how children were raised. In fact, children are hardly mentioned in the documentary. These things can certainly be alienating to those of us who value ancient institutions that have shaped the fabric of society.
On the other hand, it’s easy to sympathize with the Rajneeshees in many ways. Most of the members could probably be most accurately described as “seekers” looking for a set of truths with which to frame their world view. It’s not hard to imagine that the group of Rajneeshees might have been fairly harmless to its neighbors, had their presence been merely tolerated and not opposed outright. Most of the incidences of aggression or even suggested violence were responses to the US government or citizens blocking activities that were initiated by the group. Ultimately, though, when faced with opposition, their primitive system of values proved deficient in that it didn’t have guide rails to prevent them from carrying heinous acts against outsiders or even themselves.
Bonus points go to the series for being named after a line in a Bill Callahan song and including music from him as well as Damien Jurado and other indie-folk heroes.