I was immediately intrigued when I saw the first trailer for the Netflix documentary series Wild, Wild Country. I am a big fan of well-crafted, long form documentaries like How To Make a Murderer and I've been on the lookout for the next best one. See, there is a big difference between Reality Television and the Long Form Documentary (LFD). Reality TV commercializes human shame for profit with a half-scripted scenario, where a good LFD tells two or more sides of a complex historical event or situation and when you finish, you can see multiple angles. A good LFD should leave you struggling in the same manner that a good novel does. Wild Wild Country does this and does it very well.
This film challenges the hypocrisy of one of the founding tenets of the American Republican experiment, that peacefully congregated people should be free to worship and live as they see fit, so long as they do not harm other people in doing so. That right only exists for land-owning white Christians of some sect. In Wild Wild Country we are introduced to Osho, formally known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian spiritual leader who gathered hundreds of thousands of followers in the 1960s and 1970s, with a message of universal worship and open and free love that would result in the, “New Man,” a human being who no longer lives with mass murder and greed at his core. Rajneesh's followers came to call themselves “Rajneeshees,” and they sought to create a commune of tens of thousands who would live in harmony with one another. Having the entire world to choose from, they picked...Antelope, Oregon. After purchasing over 65,000 acres, the Rajneeshees poured in by the tens of thousands into this remote and stark area of Oregon and they thrived. They created a city complete with commerce and lakes and farms, with housing for all and they laughed, sang, danced, ate, drank and made love to celebrate living with one another in peace.
But the neighbors were not happy about this. The white Christian neighbors were not happy about this at all and they did not turn the other cheek and pray for the enemies they perceived to be on their doorsteps. They mobilized and started to harass. They armed themselves and tried to intimidate these peaceful (in the beginning) worshippers of a strange religion, as white Christians are inclined to do when their religious metaphors are challenged. And thus began a series of actions and reactions that would escalate into an absurd murder conspiracy that threatened the lives of everyone in the entire county of Wasco, Oregon.
Individuals handle pressure in different ways when they are pushed and Ma Anand Sheela, the Bhagwan's personal secretary, who was charged with his security and in carrying out his will, and in the beginning she reacted in a more intelligent way than the Christian neighbors threatening her people with violence. Sheela sought to overcome the threats of the not-so-forgiving neighbors by beating them with their own Democratic and Capitalistic rules. She started buying up the town of Antelope and she took over the city council, renamed the city to Rajneeshpuram and tried to let it stand.
But we know how White Christians work and that was never going to stand. I think of that scene in Dances With Wolves when his father-in-law asks him how many white men will be coming and John Dunbar says, “Like the stars.” Sheela had started a war that would only end in murder or the crushing of the Bhagwan's vision.
The Rajneeshees owned and operated a hotel in Portland, Oregon that was promptly bombed by the Islamist militant group Jamaat ul-Fuqra. This was the breaking point for Sheela, a strong woman who would never back down in her mission. And from here, she became radicalized, arming her people and creating an assault force by utilizing her new power as an incorporated city with the power of passing laws and enforcing them.
And the actions and reactions escalated quickly to the point where the county started to converge upon her doorstep as the next adversary. So Sheela started a campaign of busing in homeless people from around the United States. In return for giving them shelter, food, medical care and places within their community of open love and worship, their votes would be marshaled to take over the entire County of Wasco.
And here comes the breaking point of another American myth, the sanctity of the vote. In a desperate last-ditch effort to prevent Sheela's plan from working (and it would have), Wasco County shut down all new voter registrations, in a clearly illegal action that disenfranchised tens of thousands of American citizens. Republicans have been disenfranchising voters ever since because it has turned out to be an incredibly effective way to remain in power as a minority. And that should have been it. Sheela and the Rajneeshees should have gone back into their box and planned to leave Oregon and the United States because all worshipping is not equal and not all votes should count. This is the true American Way, especially in the era of Donald Trump.
But Sheela would not accept defeat and instead descended in a series of pathetic schemes that involved mass poisonings and attempted assassinations, and internal faction wars within the Rajneeshees ultimately tore the commune apart and resulted in Sheela and her cadre escaping the country while Bhagwan was finally arrested and prosecuted for marriage fraud and forced to leave the country in shame.
Sheela and her conspirators were eventually captured, tried, convicted and served their time and the Bhagwan died in relative peace in India, while the 65,000 acres where the Rajneeshees sought to create their City of Love is now home to an Abstinence-obsessed Christian cult for teenagers, a much more acceptable form of worship to the White Christian voters of Wasco County, Oregon. The ultimate irony of this tale of American hypocrisy is that American manifest destiny, an attitude of go anywhere you want and murder anyone you need to in order to secure land to live (also a core tenet of Adolph Hitler's belief in Lebensraum), is the ugly truth of American expansion into the Western Territory of the North American continent, including Oregon, the death of millions of Indians standing testament to this grisly fact.
Wild Wild Country may be one of the most effective sleight of hand documentaries ever created because while it's easy to be distracted by the tragedy and drama of attempted poisonings and assassinations, this film is not about a foreign cult that tried to take over America. This film is a headstone to the death of the American ideal of religious freedom and the sanctity of voting in our Republican Democracy. Please remember that when you watch this masterpiece.