Wild Wild Country: Wild Wild Country full series
March 28, 2018 9:32 AM - Season 1 (Full Season) - Subscribe

In 1981, controversial guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (who later in life went by Osho) moved his ashram of followers from India to a 65,000 acre ranch in rural Oregon. Known for his teachings of free love and open marriage, his fleet of Rolls Royce cars, and his collection of diamond-encrusted watches, the guru, his confrontational personal secretary, and his followers quickly drew the ire of local Oregonians over their plans to turn the commune into an actual city. Over four years, tensions escalated rapidly, leading to the arming of the commune, plots to murder elected officials, busing in hordes of homeless people to overwhelm election voting, and the largest bio-terrorism attack on U.S. soil. [Note: this is meant as a full series thread for the 6-part Netflix series, which IMDB for some reason is listing as only a two hour movie.]
posted by dnash (19 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've been meaning to also make a post for this. We're only on episode three, but I'm already pretty familiar with the story. My husband isn't really, and his reaction so far has been interesting. Episode two really makes the townspeople the bad guys (blatantly bigoted, I'm sure they're all Trump voters), I'm assuming to later pull a "But wait!" regarding the malfeasance of Sheela.

But even without knowing what actually happened and whodunit, it's still shocking to me the utter lack of people skills on display. Yeah, the townspeople feared the unknown. That's, like, normal? The way to combat that is not to act like a bunch of smug, entitled douchelords, but to proactively reach out, before you start doing the thing. Get some buy-in. Get at least one local ally. Have some meetings and informal get-togethers. Do a little gift-giving. That shit goes a long way. Yeah, there's always going to be holdouts who refuse to change their minds, but my own experience in helping start a worship center for a non-western religion in a rural American area is that you can reduce the holdout's power to impotent grumbling if you make an effort to get other community leaders on-side early.
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:06 AM on March 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

I watched the whole thing over the weekend - I felt like a full season post would be best because I've seen other multi-ep shows here kinda peter out in discussion.

Anyway - I remember the Rajneesh group to some extent from back then. I was a young teenager, but they made national news a few times, and between them and Jonestown I was already becoming fascinated by the world of "cults" and how people come to believe what they believe. I've also since read articles detailing the crimes laid out in the later episodes here. The amount of video footage they have here from back then seems quite amazing to me, it's one of the best things about it. Also that they managed to get an interview with Sheela herself - who seems shockingly unrepentant about anything, even now.

It's interesting that the show doesn't really dwell too much on the actual beliefs of the group beyond the general outline given in episode one. I would have been interested to hear from more "regular" residents of the ranch from back then, not just the big names who were most involved in the battle. How did they feel about the place then, and now? What was daily life like there at the time for those who weren't involved in the power struggles? How much did they know?

One question I think the series raises is, could the commune have continued longer if they hadn't gone for the hubris of trying to turn themselves into an actual city. Like, sure, the rural locals were bigoted against these strangers. But they had a huge piece of private land! If they'd just lived there and minded their own business, could the locals have eventually tolerated it? But instead they embark on this grand plan for a "city," incorporate as a town, and start throwing weight around in local government and politics.
posted by dnash at 11:24 AM on March 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

This was an interesting show; I hadn't known many details about the Rajneesh community other than the Rolls Royces.

One thing I would have liked to see was some questioning of the Baghwanees (the lawyer, for one) about some of the less sympathetic actions of the community - they sort of imply that Sheela is solely responsible for the salmonella outbreak, but they never seem to directly ask her about it, and they never ask any Sinyasan about the other hostile actions happening in Antelope (like parading around with guns and shining spotlights into people's windows).

I found myself siding with the lawyer's position more often than not. Busing in a bunch of homeless people to carry the vote was kind of a devious move but it seemed to be perfectly legal, and I can't imagine it would have stood up to too many appeals if they'd decided to take a strictly legal strategy to fight it.
posted by whir at 4:44 PM on March 28, 2018

Just watched episode 3 last night. I could feel Mr. Lorensen's vibe change when we got to the Haldol Beer. He's been firmly on Team Sannyasan up until this point because, well, it's 2018 and this story is sort of the perfect storm of Issues What Are Relevant. He's felt that they basically have their hearts in the right places (and no doubt many of the rank and file did and do) and should maybe have slowed their roll, but that's not a crime.

Then they stated welcoming the homeless and this is also an issue that's really dear to Mr. Lorensen's heart and he got further confused as to what exactly happened to present these fundamentally kind and generous people as such monsters. The voting? Well, again, voter disenchantment is kind of a hot topic, and what they did was not technically illegal.

But the sudden clarity of Sheela's actual feelings towards the people they took in, that they were just warm bodies who could stay as long as their votes benefited the legal situation and they didn't make trouble I think was maybe even a bit understated by the documentary. I assume they're going to cover the increasing use of Haldol to control troublemakers in later episodes? (Also where did they get, like, crates of Haldol?)

We also discussed the vagueness of the ideology as presented. It really seems like a true cult of personality with some tantric yoga thrown in. I mean, I've heard of Osho and I know he has books so there must be something there, but it's just missing from this presentation. Sheela, pretty early on in the first episode seems to imply that she actually isn't spiritual or religious at all, she just had a love at first sight experience with the Baghwan and that was that. It's weird though that all these interviewees keep taking about how much the Baghwan spoke to them and were just sitting there like....What?! What was it that spoke to you?! Explain!
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:16 AM on March 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

Oh and another thing that is still super vague to us is where are they getting all this money? I'd really like it if they could just spend 5 minutes going over the financials beyond just saying "look at all this loot!"
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:18 AM on March 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Interview with the directors from Vulture.com

They talk about what it was like to meet and interview Sheela, their feelings on whether she has any remorse for her actions (spoiler: no.)

They also mention that they did edit a "day in the life of an average commune resident" sequence but cut it. (One of the main things I felt the series needed!) They hope to maybe release it as an extra sometime.
posted by dnash at 10:36 AM on April 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

Mkay so we just finished episode 5 last night and this show remains fascinating but off-the-charts vexing with the unanswered questions. And I'm not talking about the "did they or didn't they put ground beaver in the water tower" questions but the 'WHY ARE THESE PEOPLE ACTING LIKE THIS????" questions. Husband and I spend a good third of each episode sitting next to one another on the couch arguing over what the motivations of all (and I mean all) of these people were and are, why the Baghwan/Osho is even a thing, and what in the everloving fuck the belief systems at play here are (or are there any? My husband is considering the null hypothesis here). Wikipedia has been employed, but we still feel profoundly unsatisfied.

Neither of us are newbs to Eastern religions or religious communities that aren't quite in keeping with standard American fare (I was a member of a Zen Buddhist community for much of the aughts) and we're both just flummoxed at the loyalties, the depth of feeling, and the passions of these folks. Like...why? I mean, I get that it's nice when you find a spiritual practice that clicks with you, but I'm pretty sure that if my Zen teacher would have asked us to start packing heat and going to target practice, the vast majority of us would have noped right on out.

My current pet theory about the Baghwan is that he's a coward and shit got too real. That whole apparent suicide plan he had? I think he was looking for an easy out that wouldn't require him to piss anyone off. Then he was able to pin it all on Sheela and that was super convenient. I like how he used the crematorium he built for himself to ritually cremate her instead. The "Oh hey this religion that I started and then used to purchase 50 Rolls Royces? Ha ha I can't believe you all took that seriously. It was a social experiment!" is totally him just being like, "Yeah, I seem to be getting into some hot water and this isn't fun any more. Never mind."

Anyway. I have thus far resisted really heading down this rabbit hole because I have a strong suspicion that I will not actually be able to find the kind of answers that would be satisfying.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:52 AM on April 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

And just popping back in to say that I did wind up rabbit-holing slightly but this lengthy article answers a ton of questions, including "where did they get all the money?" (Answer: literally hookers and blow).
posted by soren_lorensen at 10:25 AM on April 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

Just finished part 2, will continue tomorrow. Wanted to mention/recommend the Dutch documentary Children of the commune which looks into what it was like growing up in the Amsterdam Bhagwan commune in the seventies and eighties (spoiler: not that great).
posted by mirthe at 1:10 PM on April 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

this lengthy article answers a ton of questions

Good link! Looks like there's a whole series of pieces there.
posted by dnash at 11:22 AM on April 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Just starting this with my wife. She grew up in Laguna Beach, which had continuing culture clashes with non-Western religious devotees over her childhood, but has (to my surprise) apparently never heard of the Baghwan.

I grew up in Bloomington, IN, in a largely subcultural context in the 1970s and 80s. Many of my younger peers and compatriots grew up in various communes, and one of my pals from the era remains a devoted seeker and yogi. An older friend ran the local cable access channel and had a standing policy of running Baghwan lectures anytime a slot was unfilled on the channel.

I am one hundred percent nonreligious and nonspiritual and a part of that is very definitely growing up with exposure to these alternative religious experiements.
posted by mwhybark at 10:39 PM on May 12, 2018

Ha! Laguna had plenty of Rajneeshis.
posted by mwhybark at 10:46 PM on May 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Developing some skepticism of the filmmakers' techniques, specifically in episode 2.

Immediately following a bumper of an inflammatory local news on-site guy teasing a presumably circa 1980 segment (about 28-29 minutes in), the film makers slam-cut into two sub-second zooms of uncredited, apparently demonic graphics: close cropped shots of the covers of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide and the same-edition, but slightly earlier, Player's Handbook.

I burst out into uncontrollable laughter.

Viv turned to me and asked what the hell was so funny?

I told her that I perceived these apparent non-sequitur inserts as ironic jokes by the filmmakers at the expense of the historic 1980s media materials and news teams covering the story as it initially unfolded.

She is not familiar with the books and had no basis to understand why I found it funny. On a more careful review and analysis, these inserts are ill chosen, as without context, it is not flagged or acknowledged in any way that D&D was one of the cultural expressions that came under suspicion of demoniac spiritual blah blah blah back in the day.

To Vivian's eyes, the quick cuts to these images reinforced the sensationalist narrative of the historic media. I think that's interesting, because where I perceived an in-joke about American journalism's lameness and weakness, she did not. The filmmakers are pitching the work to have different meanings to different audiences.

Finally, essentially just archival schmutz, but in the sequence when the UO track coach guy is introduced, his European theater of operations WWII career is described, under visuals of Japanese warplanes in operation in what must be the Pacific. Sloppy.
posted by mwhybark at 11:47 PM on May 20, 2018

Okay, finally got around to watching this. The first episode was making me kind of want to bail because of all the swooning over Bhagwan but shit gets going in the second episode.

Normally I might be concerned with possible bigotry of the people of Antelope, but seriously, when a large cult moves in and TAKES OVER YOUR TOWN LEGALLY and politically, by god, you should have objections to it. They rename the town and the streets and the restaurants and take over the police force and ship in hundreds of homeless people? Shit yeah, you should object.

It's weird how Baghwan isn't any kind of presence in this until the fifth episode when Sheela is no longer there. Then of course he calls her a perfect bitch and brags that he wouldn't sleep with her (when he normally slept with like, everyone else there). I wonder why he was being silent for so long and letting her do uh, whatever.

It's kind of horrifying to watch these friendly old hippies throughout this and then you find out they were attempting murder. Such a cheat that Sheela didn't even do more than a few years of jail, wtf?

I definitely don't see any charisma or whatever in the dude in the videos and it's not like he was all that handsome or anything either. So it's hard to get the appeal. Maybe he had mojo in person for all I know. I have read a few of his books (not knowing who he was or this situation at all) and in all honesty, I like his writing or dictation or whatever it was. Maybe that was it. I feel bad for liking it, of course. Makes you wonder wtf happened, big time.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:19 PM on June 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Just finished watching this. It's good in what it covers, but there's so much not covered. Like the decades before Oregon. Or the thoughts of ex-sannyasans who got out before the shit hit the fan. Or any details of the theology, even if just to say "eh, it's a mish-mash of new age stuff plus a lot of sex". It's over 6 hours! There was time to do this.

The townspeople were bigoted but even bigots are entitled to have lives without hippies spying on them and waving AK-47s in their faces. And they weren't entirely wrong about the new folks - the doco skims over it, but a quick Google shows that it was just as crappy as other cults. Hard labor for no pay, emotional blackmail, child neglect and abuse. And as noted above, the Rajneeshees were unnecessarily rude and selfish to their neighbors. I liked the dude in overalls (Silverman?), he had a sense of humour about it now that it's all over.

I thought the lawyer was a hypocrite. He plays with the letter of the law to get his way, but objects when given a taste of his own medicine. He and the PR lady and the other current sannyasan were self-serving and self-absorbed.

As much as I think Sheela isn't the main story here, I totally get how she came to dominate the tale. She's charismatic and entertaining even when she's cold and uncaring. I think at least some of her interpersonal shitty behaviour (not the crimes) was caused by the same thing that happens in every cult - there's intense competition to get Dear Leader's approval, and he obviously played them off against each other.

I felt so much for the Australian lady though. Imagine if she'd found a good psychologist (or feminism) when having her problems early on. Instead she got drawn into a cult which promised fulfillment and then just used her.
posted by harriet vane at 5:43 AM on July 25, 2018

Oh and how fuckin' typical - Bhagwan hears from Sheela and immediately says she must be on drugs, sexually frustrated, and that she's not a woman. If he was on Tinder he'd totally go abusive as soon as a woman didn't respond the way he liked.
posted by harriet vane at 5:50 AM on July 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

From the New Republic article:
Hilly Zeitlin, a clinical social worker who was co-director of Options for Personal Transition in Berkeley, an organization dealing with cult involvement and related religious issues, said that Rajneesh had made a study of techniques of hypnotic induction used by cults, and told me that he believed Rajneesh to be a “one of the best hypnotists I have ever encountered. The way he uses language, his tone of voice, the way he sequences ideas ... all are essentially hypnotic.”
Wouldn't that be the most efficient way to start a cult? Have a welcome or greeting for everyone that implants the idea that they love Dear Leader and want to make him happy. After that you just have to say "oh I'd love another Rolls Royce" and wait for them to figure out how to get you one.
posted by harriet vane at 1:20 AM on July 30, 2018

Just finished it tonight. That was so good and so not good.

Agree with everything in this thread so far. My main personal issue is with the lack of daily life and the lack of interviews with anyone who experienced it outside of the power circles. At the end of it, it was obvious Bhagwan was a shallow fraud, Sheela was a psychopath, the lawyer has deluded himself for decades, but I never had a clear picture of what was accomplished at the commune.

Based simply on what the documentary showed, there was a vague impression that this might have been more or less ok for the rank-and-file. That they managed to create a little bubble of sexual freedom, that people were happy being there, that they conjured a modern village out of nothing in a short amount of time and were advanced (in 1980's standards) in their techniques. That the cult members weren't as beaten down as cults usually go.

I understand that's a false impression and I'll have to do some reading of the links given above. But with the documentary as the sole source, it's easy to come away with thinking "Maybe not heaven on earth, but really not all that bad. Maybe even kinda pleasant. At least pleasant if you're not one of the homeless guys they were exploiting." They really need the voices of people who lived there and dealt with the daily grind, in whatever form that grind took.

And they needed to give context. For example, when the news crews of the day were interviewing the homeless men who had been exiled, one of them accused the commune of rampant homosexuality. He meant it as an insult but, to someone in 2018 thinking of the homophobia of the early 80's, that sounds like a good thing. Acceptance and tolerance were in short supply then. That makes the cult seem a bit less evil. But what was the reality? We're never told. That clip comes and goes, and that's that.

Too many of those little incidents were shown and then forgotten. Probably the most frustrating part of this documentary.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 12:27 AM on December 6, 2018

Just watched this, some 3 years later than y'all. It's still very good! My favorite thing is the way the show left us with so much ambiguity about how folks felt about their participation in the cult when reflecting on it in the filmmaker. All the main characters had their regrets, clearly, but also they all talked with clear love and nostalgia in their eyes about the good times. Unlike Heaven's Gate or the People's Temple in Jonestown, the Rajneesh cult didn't blow up in some obviously evil and horrible way. It just kind of fell apart. That leaves room for a lot of complicated feelings.

I really wish they'd had the "daily life of a Rajneeshi" segment dnash referenced. That was most missing. I was particularly curious about the emphasis on laughter and dancing and sexuality. That all seems so positive! Was it real? Did people really go through their days mostly feeling joy? I feel like every cult I've ever read about with a free love aspect, there's sexual abuse hiding right under the surface. This documentary barely mentions it. (Quick googling suggests yes, there was sexual abuse among the Rajneeshis too.) I think Sunny was included in the documentary to try to give us a taste of an "ordinary person"; she wasn't directly involved in any of the criminal stuff. But she was in the inner circle too, so it doesn't really count.

Still, an excellent piece of storytelling. If you like this kind of storytelling and want another analysis of an exceptional event in Oregon, give the first season of Bundyville a listen. It's about the people who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge a few years ago.
posted by Nelson at 8:09 AM on March 19, 2021

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