Netflix’s new 6-part docu-series Wild Wild Country features one of the better final lines in recent memory, and it comes from Sheela, the co-architect of a major American scandal which has gone largely forgotten until now. Sheela and her Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who preached free love and endorsed the pursuit of both wealth and enlightenment, tried to establish a Shangri-la for them and their followers, first numbering in the hundreds, eventually in the thousands. They intended to build their utopia just outside Antelope, Oregon, a small retirement community, but the hostilities with the locals commenced almost immediately. By the end, multiple individuals were indicted for a head-spinning number of federal crimes, some arguably trumped up, others astonishingly legitimate.
Across all 6 episode, a largely remorseless Sheela, interviewed today from an undisclosed location, spins a tale of love, sex, greed, corruption, and outright civil war. By the end, she follows one last fiery broadside against her enemies with a sudden sigh of relief that her part in the doc is done and then motions to everyone behind the camera:
So will you after watching this amazing story so well told.
Really, executives producers Mark and Jay Duplass and co-directors Maclain and Chapman Way (The Battered Bastards of Baseball) hit the 2018 documentarian’s jackpot here. As recently joked in The Onion’s true crime parody podcast A Very Fatal Murder, any ole controversy won’t do for your documentary these days. No, you want to seek out something which speaks to as many modern anxieties as possible. In The Onion’s hands, that translated to a fictional podcaster using an artificial intelligence program to seek out “the perfect murder,” one which somehow commented on an impossible array of issues, ranging from “the ugly underbelly of the American Dream” to “the gig economy” to “CO2 emissions” to even, somehow, the “golden era of television.”
It’s just part of the parody, but in this case it’s not hard to similarly picture the Duplass and Way Brothers coming to the story of the Bhagwan from some computer algorithm scouring the historical archives for the perfect story to tick off as many boxes as possible: religious freedom, gun control, immigration, feminism, big government versus the little guy, xenophobia, the idealized America versus the cold, hard reality of America, the complicity of the media in reinforcing prejudice, the dangerously looming shadow of Reaganism, corporate malfeasance, voter registration rights and voter suppression efforts, the complex psychology of cults, a Trumpian figure who made hay in the media by being so brazenly defiant (in this case, Sheela), and, even, somehow, the New Hollywood of the 70s. More importantly, there needed to be a stunningly generous supply of archival footage from every single step of the story.
Sheela and Bhagwan’s tale of woe improbably satisfies every one of those concerns, which is partially what makes Wild Wild Country so highly bingable. It’s a jaw-dropping, surprisingly relevant story, and it’s presented to us in such an engaging way, one which is not overly reliant on standard documentary talking head segments. There is so, so, so much footage they had to play with here, from talk show appearances, old news reports, personal footage and photographs, a random art-house movie made about the beginnings of the Bhagwan’s religion, and so on, and they make ingenious use out of every last second.
From all of that, the key players quickly emerge: Sheela, the fiercely loyal follower who came to Bhagwan at just 16; Shanti B, a despondent Australian housewife who sought out religious enlightenment halfway around the world and quickly became Sheela’s lieutenant; Prem Niren, a fast-rising attorney L.A. lawyer who felt burnt out by career and capitalistic pursuits and gave up everything before finding his way to becoming the Bhagwan’s personal attorney; Jayananda, a businessman despondent with the West after Vietnam and thus an early adopter of New Age movements and early Bhagwan financier; Sandy, one of Bhagwan’s PR experts; Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Weaver, one of the key lawyers on the case against the Bhagwan; and the various Antelope residents who still live there today.
Other key individuals have either since died or are not interviewed for undisclosed reasons, which is admittedly a weakness on the doc’s part.
The Way Brothers first make their case to us in a 10-minute prologue mixing together talking head segments of the current residents of Antelope with a dizzying array of archival clips communicating the gist of the story. At one point, we see footage of a robed, long-bearded Indian man slowly walking along a red carpet laid out in the middle of a city street as a handful of his supporters, all dressed in red, dance and cry in his presence.
So, immediately we know we’re in for a comedic culture clash here. But we also know the comedy eventually turns wildly dramatic, as another archival clip contains an FBI agent ominously declaring, “We had no idea that we were going to run into the largest poisoning case in the history of the United States, into the largest wiretapping case, and into the largest immigration fraud that had occurred in the United States.”
After the prologue, the first episode flashes back to the early 70s, by which point Bhagwan had already established a faithful following of sannyasins, i.e., believers in his teachings about what he dubbed “new man.” As seen in footage from one of his early gatherings, he had concluded that humanity around the globe was withering in the face of the soul-crushing reality of commercialism and sadly unsustainable/limited worldview of Buddhism. His proposal was to combine the two and create a new way of thinking which embraced both the creature comforts of living and the need for enlightenment. Essentially, he could meditate but look damn good doing it.
Combine that with his teachings about free sex and dynamic medication, “a combination of Hinduism and psychotherapies,” and you had a guru leader a lot of westerners could get behind and support, which fed his coffers with hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, he eventually ran afoul of Indian authorities, which made it a perfect time to leave his home country in pursuit of attempting his grand experiment of a creating a shining city on the hill, so to speak, which could serve as an example to the world. Thanks to America’s freedom of religion laws, it seemed like the perfect place to stage the experiment.
That gets us to Antelope, a sleepy community of 40 retirees and ranchers who had the misfortune of being located around 20 miles away from the massive amount of land purchased by the Bhagwan to build his city. We watch as Bhagwan’s people, led by Sheela, do a genuinely amazing job of turning an undervalued slab of dead land into an oasis of blossoming plants, thriving gardens, trickling streams, and joyous celebration. Moreover, we watch as Sheela, Shanti B, and Prem Niren look back on this period with immense pride.
But we know it doesn’t end well. The prologue told us so. Discovering the various twists and turns around each corner is part of Wild Wild Country’s immense delight, and I won’t spoil any more. Just know that your allegiances will likely shift repeatedly throughout the six episodes, as certain individuals who are unjustly slighted repeatedly respond in truly questionable ways. You will be stunned how many socially relevant boxes the story ticks off. And, in the end, you will be left to make up your own mind about what position to take.
More than anything, though, you’ll just be blown away by this jaw-dropping story which had somehow been swept under the dustbin of history until now.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“You know someone will write a book about this, and I will guarantee you that when that book comes out, the people that will read it will say it’s fiction,” is how one unnamed Oregonian puts it near the beginning of Wild Wild Country. Well, they’ve made a documentary, I just binged it, and I still can’t quite believe it.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Through the three primary representatives of Bhagwan in the doc, we have the non-repentant one (Sheela) who thinks modern-day Sannyasins have lost their way, the true believer (Prem Niren) who still cries at the mere thought of Bhagwan, and the one (Shanti B) who spent years struggling to decondition herself from her time inside the cult. Then there are the small-town Oregon folk who just want things to stay the same and the various attorneys and civil servants trying to uphold the law. Who do you think is right?
- The phrase “Better dead than red” takes on a new, literal meaning here.
- I imagine that if Wild Wild Country takes off in pop culture it’s going to inspire lots of Sheela memes.
- For those who enjoy Wild Wild Country but wish it had pushed a little harder on the Bhagwan’s complicity as well as the psychology of cult members check out Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief