Studying the different eras of modern history, one can quickly identify the catalysts of many a counterculture movement — during times of political and social unrest, it is only natural for people to seek out an alternative way of living, being, and yes, even believing.
The 1970s Rajneesh movement, subject of the Netflix documentary, Wild, Wild Country, almost seemed to have been a spiritual extension of what the hippies practised before the Rajneeshees; namely freedom of expression, non-conformity, love and harmony. The ideals of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his disciples were born from a need to create a sacred space, one that did not believe in the separatism practised by the world at large and instead focused on a united, self-sustainable future. But upon moving to the USA, their utopian dream of building their own city, Rajneeshpuram, and the purity of its questionable, complex system was challenged against the American Dream, resulting in a bizarre civil war: the Rajneeshpuram vs Antelope (Wasco County, Oregon).
The six-part series, Wild, Wild Country, opens to an introduction of the sleepy town of Antelope, population 45. Mainly made up of pensioners looking to enjoy a quiet life, one can understand why they would have been somewhat frazzled by the arrival of the Rajneeshees, whom they quickly began referring to as ‘The Orange People’. Having bought 64,229 acres of land on what was formerly known as Central Oregon’s Big Muddy Ranch, the Rajneeshees built a city big enough to house 7,000 people in record time. Complete with its own urban infrastructure, houses, schools, restaurants and shops, the city of Rajneeshpuram had all it needed to operate entirely self-sufficiently. Hence, there was no real reason for the residents of Antelope to feel concerned about the future of their own town, other than their fear of the unknown.
The building of Rajneeshpuram, led by Bhagwan’s personal secretary and indirect series’ protagonist, Ma Anand Sheela, was frowned upon even before issues of legal land use arose (the Oregon courts eventually ruled in favour of Rajneeshpuram, in 1986). This had little to do with the Antelope’s apprehensions about the effects Rajneeshpuram may have on their own lives, and everything to do with the mere fact that the commune consisted of the unknown — thousands of people from unknown countries and origins, following an unknown guru and his foreign teachings and practises. One resident, recalling the Rajneeshees arrival, recognized their otherness simply by their shoes: ‘You could spot Europeans by the shoes. They wore fashionable leather shoes — not cowboy boots’.
And, while this reaction may be understandable for such a small, rural community, this quote begs to ponder: would things have ended differently had the Rajneeshees conformed to the regional fashion code? Would they have been met with the same opposition had they been a Christian cult? Would they have been welcomed had they consisted mainly of white disciples? Time and again, the residents and government of Antelope refer to the Rajneeshees as ‘these people’ and make it clear that there is no room for them in ‘our country’ — a sentiment that is sadly timely and reflective not just of US history and Trump’s America, but world history at large.
The beauty of Wild, Wild Country is that it is unbiased in its depiction of both parties — both of whom were at fault for what soon became a global scandal. Though it is clear the commune’s charismatic and extremely intelligent leader-by-proxy, Ma Anand Sheela, began to execute megalomaniac tendencies in her bid to save Rajneeshpuram, one can’t help but wonder if this would have happened had it not been for the hostility with which Antelope’s residents met the Rajneeshees upon their arrival.
It didn’t take long for Sheela and her followers to push back with goading tactics, but up until the Hotel Rajneesh in Portland, Oregon was bombed, their retaliations had been legal, at times intimidatingly so. But the Rajneeshees, under the spell of what they believed to be Bhagwan’s word, ultimately reported for battle, ready to fight for what was legally theirs. In response to the Wasco County government and the people of Antelope’s own immoral tactics, including election fraud, the spreading of bigoted statements against the ‘Red Vermin’ and religious prosecution; Rajneeshees began taking extreme measures to preserve their rights, such as infecting salad bars with salmonella and infecting 751 people, 45 of which were hospitalized.
The series does not offer any black and white answers as to the rights and wrongs of both parties, but what it does offer is empathy to its characters by showing the impact this experience has had on their lives. In an interview with IndieWire’s podcast, TURN IT ON, Wild, Wild Country producer, Mark Duplass noted that, the biggest message to be taken away from the series are the dangers of becoming: ‘dug in so firmly on your own side of things […] you lose the ability to compromise, or even communicate for the potential of compromise’.
Wild, Wild Country is, what directors Chapman and Maclain Way call, ‘an exercise in critical thinking and judgement’, and these are exactly the kind of exercises we need in a world that draws so many parallels with the social issues present today — just as they were during the Rajneeshpuram era.