Wild Wild Country review – Netflix’s take on the cult that threatened American life

Chapman and Maclain Way’s absorbing six-parter covers the rise and fall of the notorious Rajneeshpuram community more extensively than any show before it

At the start of the first episode of Wild Wild Country (Netflix), John Silvertooth is remembering how it all began, back in 1981. John, now a smiley old dude with a moustache and dungarees, was the mayor of Antelope. Sounds like a big deal, but the population of Antelope, in Wasco County, Oregon, was about 40, most of whom had probably been mayor at some point.

Anyway, John was walking to the post office and he ran into a man – not an American, John could tell from the shoes – standing in the middle of the street. “They’re coming,” the man told John. And they did.

Who came? Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, from India. The great guru, spiritual teacher and mystic. Or the dangerous cult leader, master criminal and terrorist, depending on which side you were on. Or maybe simply a hippy with a long, wispy beard, a collection of dodgy outfits and a penchant for Rolls-Royces.

Along with Rajneesh came several thousand of his followers, including Ma Anand Sheela, his personal secretary, lieutenant and mastermind of most of what went on at Rajneeshpuram, which is what the land formerly known as the Big Muddy Ranch became.

What did go on? Ha – what didn’t go on, more like. It wasn’t just about a bunch of blissed-out, brainwashed hippies waving their arms in the air and shagging whomever they fancied, whenever and wherever, while their neighbours – the God-fearing folks of Antelope – cursed them and waved their stars and stripes from over the fence. There is more to this story than that.

You want fear and loathing, paranoia and megalomania? You got it, baby, big time. Plus attempted murder, biological warfare, an arms race, automatic weaponry, bombs, Learjets, the FBI, the National Guard, espionage, drugs, the biggest immigration fraud case in US history, wire-tapping, a sad subplot involving 6,000 homeless people, Hollywood glitz, Nike, the US constitution getting waved about by various people. Look hard and you might even see parallels with more recent events: electoral manipulation; a poison terror attack on a small town (people know whodunnit, but where is the evidence?). And don’t forgot the beaver in a blender.

It doesn’t matter how well you know the Rajneeshpuram story – you won’t have seen or heard it told as thoroughly as this. There are extensive interviews, most notably with Sheela, now out of jail (for attempted murder and assault) and living in Switzerland, where she works in a nursing home. I am not sure I would want any relative of mine going there. If this is anyone’s story, it is Sheela’s: obsession personified. Also interviewed: Antelope residents (including Silvertooth), followers of Rajneesh, attorneys for both sides, attorney generals, politicians and investigative journalists.

The interviews are interwoven with archive footage from inside and outside Rajneeshpuram and news coverage from the time – anchors with 80s hair unable to hide their excitement at the story of the sex cult that threatened the American way of life. Plus, when there is nothing else to go with visually, they opt for illustrations that look a bit like court drawings. Odd, but better than lame reconstructions.

It is beautifully constructed and balanced, since it alternates between the two camps. Yes, Rajneesh’s followers were dangerously obsessed, but they did build a functioning city very quickly in the middle of nowhere. The authorities who went after them don’t come over as angels, either: suspicious and self-righteous, they twisted the rules to get the Rajneeshees out.

You might think six one-hour-plus episodes is a lot. Not too much, though. In fact, I still had further questions. Wild Wild Country barely touches on what Rajneesh believed and taught: he wanted to raise the consciousness of humanity, for everyone to see who they really were … actually, I am not too fussed about that; the new agers can get a book about it. But I wanted to know about more about life at Rajneeshpuram, for the children, for example. And about the finances: how much did it cost to build the airport, buy the Learjets and all the Rollers? Also about some of the other characters, such as Puja, the nurse and poisoner-in-chief (and possibly beaver-blender).

Hey, it is still an exhaustive and utterly absorbing piece of work by brothers Maclain and Chapman Way. Scary for non-Netflix documentary makers, too. As Silvertooth and the other residents of Antelope did on seeing the hordes showing up in their funny shoes, they will look at the ambition, scale and budget of Wild Wild Country and shake their heads, wondering what the hell they can do.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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