What I’m Watching: Wild Wild Country

I’ve always wished I were more eager to watch documentaries. I think they play an incredibly important role in society, and an incredibly unique one: they are part education, part entertainment and in some cases, part call-to-action. But like I said, they have never really been my cup of tea. I agreed though, to watch Netflix’s Wild Wild Country after hearing some intriguing reviews. While it was educational and entertaining at times, my overall reaction to the documentary was mixed. I will tell you why.

Wild Wild Country tells the story of Rajneeshpuram, the cult/city established in rural Oregon in the 1980s by the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a controversial spiritual leader from India. During the years the city flourished it was constantly engaged in very public battles with the surrounding towns, the state of Oregon, and even the US as a country, so press was always around. This meant that much of the documentary contained footage from the town, interviews with its residents from the 80s, and clips from TV interviews and news stories from that era. This footage was interspersed with present-day interviews with some of the story’s biggest players—it is this element that I feel can make or break a documentary, and for me, the people that appeared in the series did a little of both.

One person firmly in the “make” category was Ma Anand Sheela, Bhagwan’s personal secretary for the majority of the Rajneeshpuram years. During those years, Sheela served as the public face of the community, and often did so in a fiery, headstrong way. In her interview now, over 30 years later, she was no different. Sheela gave off an aura of strength and conviction, never apologizing for her beliefs or her opinions. Yes, she certainly made some morally questionable decisions, but she never once apologized for or rolled any of them back. She was incredibly observant and intelligent in her understanding of how perception and presentation can influence public opinion. And though she was Bhagwan’s secretary, her agency and power oozed from every pore. It was fascinating to listen to her talk about the past, at times reminiscing about Rajneeshpuram’s successes, at times disappointed at the way things turned out, but never apologetic, and never backtracking on the beliefs and actions that have defined her. This combination, plus her obviously central role in the story the documentary was telling, made her presence a highlight of the series for me.

An equally fascinating player was Philip Toelkes, a.k.a. Swami Prem Niren. He was a lawyer, a member of the Rajneesh community and eventually the city’s mayor and Bhagwan’s lawyer in his criminal trial. Toelkes was interesting to me simply because when you think of people who would join a spirituality cult, he is not the type of person you would think of. He was well educated, well informed about the world, yet drawn to the possibility of enlightenment and spiritual awakening. This dichotomy was apparent in his present day interviews, which I found quite interesting and relatable, as I’m sure there are many people who feel that these two ideas may not be able to co-exist.

The low point, for me, was Ma Shanti B. After Sheela and Toelkes, Shanti B’s present-day interviews were giving the most screen time, but it was during her segments that I found my mind wandering. I understand that she did play a large role in the scandals that occurred, but I didn’t find her interesting because she was virtually the opposite of Toelkes—she was the person who you would expect to join a cult. In the final episode, when she was talking about being released from prison, she said “I was 43, but I was still a child.” Unlike Sheela, she had no agency whatsoever. She was swept up in the cult and did what she was told, and that was a story that simply wasn’t as interesting to me.

The residents of Antelope, the small Oregon town that Rajneeshpuram essentially took over, I found to be utterly delightful. I think they probably could have been portrayed as ignorant and close-minded, but they weren’t, instead providing thoughtful reflections on what it was like for these people to come in and essentially take over their town. This thoughtfulness was really driven home in the last episode, when one of the Antelope residents mentioned that the ranch where Rajneeshpuram was located is now the site of a lavish Christian youth camp, which is similar in many ways to the cult that was there in the 80s. I suppose this could be viewed as a heavy-handed way of saying “see, they weren’t being racist!” but I thought it was astute nonetheless.

The other way in which this documentary lost me, apart from Shanti B, was in its structure. It was six episodes, but I think the total run time was closer to seven hours. The pacing felt incredibly slow and lurid at times, and the most frustrating part for me was when they would arrive at something scandalous, like the alleged poisoning of the street people in the town, and just brush over it and continue with the story. I realized after completing the series that this was because they wanted to maintain a chronological narrative, but I’m not sure I would have done it that way. I feel I would have been much more engaged throughout if they had stopped to dig into some of these things when they first came up, beyond just mentioning that they happened and then reminding us that they happened when they resurfaced in a later episode.

In all, I thought the documentary, and the story it told, had some fascinating elements, and that the story of Rajneeshpuram provides a gripping case-study on the influence of spirituality, community and the lengths to which people will go to maintain power. But for me, again not an avid watcher of documentaries, I would have been more engaged if it had moved along a bit more briskly and given more time to investigating the scandals and the people in positions of power and agency. I suppose I like my documentaries heavier on the entertainment and lighter on the education.

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