Wild Wild Country tells the story of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s attempt to build a new city outside the tiny town of of Antelope, Oregon in the early 1980’s…and how everything came apart. Production-wise, it’s very slick, with plenty of B-roll and excerpts from Phil Donahue and all the nostalgia-soaked scenes of big 80’s hair you’d want to see. Interviews of the principal figures (the ones who are still alive) make for a riveting watch: their recollections of events, how they look now versus back then, and their overall description of just what happened out there are amazing.
And yet there’s a frustrating lack of detail, owing mostly to the producers’ obvious (and disturbing) sympathy for the Bhagwan and his cultists. To get the full picture of what they were, what they did, and why they failed, you have to watch between the lines, so to speak, and do your own research. Many aspects of the Bhagwan’s life and his cult’s practices are often glossed over, or presented only through the lens of unreliable narrators like the people of Antelope, who are portrayed as xenophobic, unsophisticated hicks.
To help potential viewers navigate through this minefield, here’s a quick summary:
The Bhagwan created a sex cult in India that focused on acquiring wealth from rich, foolish Westerners. To avoid prosecution for financial crimes in his native country, he bought a huge parcel of land in Oregon and lied to all his new neighbors that he was setting up a ranch; his real intention was to build a new city devoted to his bizarre belief system, aided and abetted by worshipers whose daily highlight was to watch him tool down the main road in one of his 90+ Rolls Royce automobiles. When the local townsfolk, concerned about this new state of affairs, attempted to oust these newcomers, the Bhagwan bused in hundreds of homeless people from around the country to fill the voter rolls. When the homeless people acted out, the Bhagwan surreptitiously drugged them with Haldol. Then the Bhagwan engaged in a massive bio-terror attack, infecting over 700 Oregonians with salmonella. The Bhagwan also plotted to murder US Federal Prosecutor Charles Turner. The Bhagwan’s closest advisor, Ma Anand Sheela, was the mastermind behind these attacks, so when law enforcement finally caught up with the Bhagwan, he was merely deported, where he spent his remaining days living a life of luxury overseas. Minus at least a few of his Rolls Royces.
There’s a great deal of ugly stuff in this documentary, all justified by Ma Anand Sheela, as cool a psychopath as you’re ever likely to see on screen. These were bad people who did bad things, and an attempt to be even-handed about their crimes is a shocking display of moral relativism.
And yet, it’s a fun show. Give it a look and tell me what you think.