Trying to describe Wild Wild Country — Netflix’s new six-part docuseries about the Rajneeshee religious group that once literally took over a town in Oregon in the early 1980s — it would sound like a season of Game of Thrones. But this really happened.
And that, in and of itself, is remarkable because this story features spiritual gurus, sex cults, greed, lies, betrayals, poisonings, arson, political coups, assassination plots, revenge, espionage, and yes, the taking over of an entire town in the United States of America in 1981.
Oh, and guns. Lots and lots of guns:
17,000 rounds of ammo, 20 semiautomatic Uzzi rifles, 96 Russian AK-47 rifles, and 1 million rounds of AK-47 ammo.
In a news clip at the time, one federal agent stated that’s “more automatic weapons than all the police forces in Oregon combined.”
But this isn’t just a simple narrative about a “terrorist sex cult.” Through a treasure trove of archival footage and recent interviews with most of the major surviving players on all sides of this story’s many conflicts, “Wild Wild Country” spins a Rashomon-like tale that transcends its most sensational elements and delves deep into the awesome power of belief.
The story begins in India in the 1970s when the spiritual guru known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh developed a following both among the Indian people and wealthy white Americans who had come to the country seeking an escape from their unfulfilling lives.
But Wild Wild Country makes the wise decision to focus primarily on the period that followed, when Bhagwan and/or his secretary Ma Anand Sheela decided to uproot 50,000 followers to the United States and build a community for them in the 63,000 acres of desert they purchased outside the sleepy Oregon town of Antelope, population 50.
The Rajneeshees constructed a self-sustainable city out there and didn’t waste any time making enemies out of their neighbors in Antelope. What would follow contains echoes of Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Scientology, and the Branch Davidians, not to mention enough drama to fill a Shakespearean tragedy.
Though, at the center of this grand experiment was less Bhagwan himself — who allegedly was spending these years taking a vow of silence and driving around in his Rolls Royce — but rather Sheela, his faithful lieutenant. And, during this period, Sheela transformed from a glorified spokeswoman for the community into its most recognizable face. Her shockingly combative and profanity-laced appearances turned Sheela into a quasi-reality TV star.
Before long, prejudices among both the citizens of Antelope and the red-robe-wearing Rajneeshee faithful tore the communities apart and drove them into all-out war.
Directed by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way (The Battered Bastards of Baseball) and Executive Produced by fellow brothers and filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass, Wild Wild Country challenges our preconceptions about faith and how far the truly devout will go to preserve it.
But there’s also something fundamentally American in the Rajneeshee’s quest. Fleeing from supposed religious oppression in the East, these immigrants chose a mission of Western expansion, which involved taming the land in the middle of the desert and eventually seizing the lands occupied by an already present native population. As strange as this particular religious group appears to be on the surface, perhaps they’re not so different after all.