Your first reaction to Wild Wild Country, the six-part Netflix documentary about the rise and fall of an Indian guru and his followers when they relocated to America in the 1980s, will probably be jaw-dropping disbelief. And if the series did nothing else then it would still suffice as gripping entertainment: told with impressive clarity and an eye for telling details, it's overflowing with little-known but shocking events.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh told his followers his spiritual teachings – a heady if seemingly contradictory mix of eastern spirituality, creative freedom, sexual healing and capitalist ambition – would lead to the ascent of "the New Man", and he built a huge following in India that attracted westerners throughout the 1970s. When political troubles threatened his position, he and his followers relocated to a ranch in rural Oregon in 1981, which soon brought them into conflict with the nearby town of Antelope, population 40.
Local election vote-stacking, illegal development, armed harassment and mutual antagonism soon took root, as the Bhagwan's personal secretary and fixer Ma Anand Sheela began to push through the creation of a self-contained city. But because directors Maclain and Chapman Way take their time establishing this narrative, talking to most of the key figures involved inside and outside the orange-clad Rajneesh, the escalation has an orderly outlook. Even as events run out of control, it has a clear logic to those involved.
The series never makes assumptions. For many outsiders, for example, Bhagwan was a fraud and his fervent Rajneeshees cult members, but Wild Wild Country establishes the faith – in some cases still abiding – of his followers. The story is mapped out like a thriller, as Sheela's plans become more extreme and increasingly state and federal officials target the organisation. At its heart, it's about faith. Everyone involved believes in something, whether it's the Bhagwan's teachings or the U.S. legal system.
What fascinates audiences about the series, which has overcome Netflix's usual lack of advance promotion to become its most talked-about recent release, is how far people will go in the name of their beliefs. One veteran Rajneesh, West-Australian-born wife and mother Jane Stork, who was reborn as Ma Shanti B, recounts in great depth her ecstatic conversion and complete satisfaction, and how much the Bhagwan meant to her.
That belief propels her all the way to the point where she finds herself armed with a gun, waiting to gun down a U.S. Attorney Sheela had targeted. We live in an age where beliefs more than ever clash instead of accommodate. We are overflowing with disdain for the philosophy of others, yet justify our own without question. Wild Wild Country is a very entertaining warning about where that can lead us.
In the case of the Rajneeshees, it explores the reality of the ends justifying the means. The organisation's insularity means that advancing its cause, or simply protecting the Bhagwan from outside authorities, allows for the collection of approximately 6000 homeless people from across America so the numbers in a county-wide election could be fixed. When the newcomers, many suffering from mental illness, became unruly, Sheela's staff gave them beer laced with sedatives. That's shocking, but then there's also the mass immigration fraud and the bioterrorism attack to consider.
The storytelling also undercuts modern outlooks. As a defiant brown-skinned woman who refused to back down in the face of the overwhelmingly white and conservative Oregon establishment, Sheela often comes across in the extensive media clips as a prototype of the current-day activist, complete with her quote-ready advocacy. Interviewed in Switzerland, where she now resides after some hefty ramifications, she remains undaunted. By allowing Sheela to recount events as she sees it, instead of challenging her with verdicts that have already been established, a different truth emerges.
The long-form documentary has profited from inexplicable individuals and their crimes in recent years, whether it's O.J. Simpson (O.J.: Made in America) or Robert Durst (The Jinx), but Wild Wild Country signals the move towards organisations and mass movement. We're no longer simply worried about the acts of a malevolent stranger, but the way that motivated groups can alter our society. The archival footage may be decades old, but Netflix's new hit ultimately asks us to get past that jaw-dropping disbelief and consider the here and now.