Like many others, I went through a phase of binge-watchingT documentaries and tv shows near the start of the pandemic. Wild Wild Country has been on my “to-watch” list ever since.
Released on Netflix in 2018, Wild Wild Country (director: Maclain Way, Chapman Way) explores the controversial and tumultuous events surrounding the Rajneesh movement1 Rajneesh movement | History, Beliefs, & Facts | Britannica. (n.d.). Www.britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Rajneesh-movement in the 1980s.
If you’re on the fence of whether or not it’s worth watching, this review should hopefully give you a good idea of what to expect without giving away major revelations.
My intent with the review of this Netflix documentary series is to cover the following:
Summary of Wild Wild Country
Wild Wild Country is a 6-episode Netflix series centered around the Rajneesh movement, led by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho). Regarded as a spiritual guru, Bhagwan amassed hundreds of thousands of followers around the world.
Bhagwan’s followers referred to themselves as “Rajneeshees” or “Sannyasins”. The latter is a term derived from the Sanskrit word sannyasa2 Prabhu, M. (2022, November 18). Sannyasa: The True Meaning. Vedic Management Center. https://www.vedic-management.com/sannyasa-the-true-meaning/, which means “the path of renunciation”. For them, it reflected a commitment to a spiritual and communal lifestyle based on the teachings of Bhagwan.
In 1981, along with a core group of his disciples, Bhagwan traveled to rural Oregon with a goal of establishing a commune on the ranch land they purchased. The result was an entire town named after their leader, with its own infrastructure and law enforcement.
As such, the documentary follows numerous legal and social conflicts with the local residents, government authorities, and the FBI.
Although there were many people involved in the Rajneesh movement, the documentary mainly focuses on a handful of individuals.
- Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who later went by the name of Osho, was the spiritual leader and central figure around whom the Rajneesh movement revolved.
- Ma Anand Sheela was Bhagwan’s personal secretary for the majority of the time the group spent in Oregon. His first lieutenant, she was a key figure in the administration of Rajneeshpuram.
- Swami Prem Niren (Philip Toelks) was a long-time follower of Bhagwan’s and one of the attorneys who represented the community and served as his legal counsel during the turbulent times at Rajneeshpuram.
- Ma Shanti Bhadra (Jane Stork) was a devoted follower who spent time in Bhagwan’s Indian ashram before moving to the Oregon commune. In this documentary, she is often referred to as “Shanti B”.
- Swami Prem Savita (“Sunny”) performed a variety of responsibilities in Rajneeshpuram. In particular, this documentary focused on her role engaging with the media and other external entities to manage the public perception of the commune.
- Residents: John Silvertooth, Jon Bowerman & More.
Review of Wild Wild Country
I will preface this review by saying that I went into it almost entirely blind. I knew as much as the blurb told me, which boiled down to the fact that a spiritual leader from India moved to the US to create a commune for himself and his followers.
Of course, I knew that they don’t make documentaries about non-consequential events. Plus, there have been many articles and books covering the Rajneeshpuram community. There had to be more to the story.
Although the Rajneesh movement spanned at least two decades, the main focus of this documentary is the time Bhagwan and his followers spent in Oregon in the early 1980s.The narrative is split into six episodes, covering the origins of the Bhagwan’s rise to popularity, his time in Oregon, and the aftermath of the commune’s dissolution in 1985, all with archival footage woven in.
I understand the importance of establishing a background, though personally, I found the pacing quite slow at the part 1. That said, the story quickly picks up in part 2.
I should also give credit to the way the narrative was structured. While fascinating, the first half of the docuseries had me wondering what the big deal was. I kept waiting for the second shoe to drop… And boy was it worth the wait!
Unfortunately, it was very evident that the story was somewhat twisted to elicit a specific response. I go into more detail in the criticisms section of this review (beware of the spoilers!).
One of the enticing aspects of Wild Wild Country was the production quality. The series featured extensive accounts regarding the events in the 1980s, both from people within the Rajneesh community and those opposing it.
Along with detailed interviews, this documentary had heaps of video footage pulled from personal archives and media reports. It really helped to convey the atmosphere at the time, which caused people to search for a way of life different from traditional American values.
The other notable aspect of the production was the music. Whoever chose the soundtrack profoundly contributed to the story and my investment in this documentary series.
Characters and Context
It was interesting to see how the accounts of a handful of people interviewed for this series shaped the narrative.
While it does not apply to every person featured in the story, certain portrayals provided a fascinating character study. I watched in awe as people recounted the events in Oregon in a matter-of-fact manner, even if it concerned unethical or downright criminal actions.
Unfortunately, the documentary failed to provide enough context for the popularity of Bhagwan and the reasons he had such hold on other people. When it comes to the characterization in this documentary, Bhagwan seemed like a secondary character.
Having watched the entire documentary, I still do not understand what it was about him that drew people in and made them go to extreme lengths just to experience the honor of being in his presence.
Criticisms and Limitations
While I generally enjoyed this docuseries, it was not without its faults. Upon reading feedback from other people and further research into Rajneeshpuram, it became clear that Wild Wild Country tells a fascinating but biased version of the events.
Antelope vs Rajneeshpuram
The way the story is presented (at least at the start of the series), Bhagwan and his echelon move to Oregon in search of a promised land. They purchase ranch land and set off to build a utopian self-sustaining community, together with crop fields, housing, a shopping center, a huge meditation hall, and even its own airport.
On paper, it sounds idyllic. Watching the series, I could definitely see why people were drawn to the idea of this commune. Had I lived in the 80s, I would certainly be tempted to move to a remote ranch to live among like-minded individuals.
The ranch bought by the group was near the quiet town of Antelope, mainly populated by other ranchers and retirees. As you may imagine, it was not a particularly diverse demographic, and the people of Antelope did not take kindly to hundreds of people dressed in red suddenly roaming the streets of their little town.
And so, on the surface, it appears that the locals were just a bunch of conservative prudes who rejected the Sannyasins because they were different. If only they left the Rajneeshees to do their own thing, nothing bad would have happened. Right? Right?!
I’m afraid, it’s not that simple. Bhagwan and his followers were not as harmless as it may seem. While some of the antipathy from the locals was probably informed by bigotry, the commune was far from innocent.
Crime and No Punishment
To fuel the narrative outlined in the previous point, the documentary conveniently omits information regarding the way Bhagwan and his followers skirted or broke the law.
The few illegal dealings of Rajneeshees that do get mentioned, are either glossed over or presented as ambiguous at best. The most notable transgressions of the group include:
- Tax evasion
- Exploitative labor practices
- Surveillance and wiretapping
- Coerced sterilization
- Poisoning and spreading pathogens
- Attempted murder
- Sexual misconduct and abuse involving minors.
The last item is arguably the most diabolical on this list, and yet, there is no mention of it in the documentary. Instead, the documentary focuses on Bhagwan’s visa status, the land use dispute, and voter fraud on election day.
Putting Cult in Culture
Although the documentary is careful to refer to Rajneeshpuram as a commune, for all intents and purposes this movement was a cult.
It has a signature hierarchical structure, where a select few enjoy a luxurious lifestyle while the vast majority of the members are treated as disposable.
Another tell-tale sign of a cult is a living cult leader whose word is regarded as the law. Whatever he says (or whatever his secretary claims he said) is the law. The movement is named after the man at the top, and later, the city of Rajneeshpuram also takes on his name.
Although Bhagwan later refuted its status as a religion, for several years Rajneeshism was regarded as a new religion. In fact, to grant Bhagwan the right to stay in the country, he was posed as a religious leader.
Other cult-like practices include a requirement to give up all assets to the commune, referring to work as “worship”, assigning each member’s worth based on their commitment to the doctrine, and considering secular law not applicable to the group.
A Capitalist Affair
It’s very clear that the entire movement, along with their stint in Oregon, is nothing more but a scheme to make money.
From the very beginning, we are shown that the ashram in India was treating visitors as a funds source which allowed Bhagwan to buy the ranch in Oregon and travel there in his private jet.
For a man who claimed to be unbound and enlightened, Bhagwan certainly had an affinity for shiny things. This is attested by his obsession with Rolls Royces and his love for diamond-encrusted Rolexes.
It is also clear that some of the interviewees used the documentary as an opportunity to promote their books.
How Does Yoga Figure Into This?
At this point, you may be wondering… Well, what does this documentary have to do with yoga? The truth is, very little.
Bhagwan’s teachings were a combination of Western psychology, Eastern mysticism, philosophy, and dynamic meditation practices. The documentary makes a brief mention of Kundalini yoga as a practice that inspired some of the group meditation techniques.
Outside of that, it feels like the movement was built on unquestioning adoration for its leader as opposed to any specific practices.
I can genuinely say that I found this documentary a fascinating study of human character, the US legal system, and its loopholes, as well as an interesting glimpse into the anatomy of a cult.
However, it was quite limited in its coverage, which is why I would recommend the following sources to learn more about Rajneeshpuram and the movement as whole:
- The Rajneesh Chronicles: The True Story of the Cult that Unleashed the First Act of Bioterrorism on U.S. Soil by Win McCormack
- The Promise of Paradise: A Woman’s Intimate Story the Perils of Life With Rajneesh by Satya Bharti Franklin
- The original 20-part investigative series written by Les Zaitz in The Oregonian following the events of 1981-85.