Netflix’s latest documentary series, Wild Wild Country, takes viewers through a tumultuous period in American history that had until recently been all but forgotten.
After gaining access to more than 300 hours of archived footage about Rajneeshpuram, a commune established in eastern Oregon in the early 1980s, brothers Maclain and Chapman Way knew they had to make a series exploring how the commune’s power grew — and eventually crumbled in violence. Rajneeshpuram sprang up in a remote area of Oregon after followers of the Indian spiritual leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a bearded guru with a love of Rolls Royces, took over the area in an effort to build a utopia, much to the chagrin of local townspeople. But what began as a culture of peace and free love morphed, as the group struggled to keep control of the area, into a saga marked by poison attacks, attempted murders and rampant immigration fraud.
The Ways received the footage after finishing up their first documentary, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, which was based in Portland, Oregon. An archivist at the Oregon Historical Society alerted them to the story, giving them hundreds of hours of archived footage, the bulk of which news stations intentionally did not tape over, sensing an imperative to preserve the coverage of such a bizarre, divisive time in history. As they geared up to interview people involved on all sides of the conflict, the brothers found that their subjects wanted to share their stories as a warning for the future.
“They see it as different types of warnings,” Maclain Ways says, referring to the locals and the Rajneeshees, who are also known as sannyasins. “If you ask the sanyassins, a lot of them will tell you this is a warning of religious persecution and government overreach. If you talk to the neighboring ranchers of the Rajneeshees, they’ll tell you the story of Rajneeshpuram is a warning of cults and what happens when people become brainwashed and do destructive things.”
Wild Wild Country refuses to establish clear heroes or villains. The Way brothers wanted to let the Rajneeshees’ actions and the complaints of locals unfold without an added layer of condemnation. The group’s members, clad in uniforms of red, orange and purple clothing, quickly made enemies of the local residents of Antelope, Oregon, a small town located near the compound. As the commune grew into a city of its own, complete with an airport, malls and restaurants, the largely conservative Antelopeans became angrier and more resentful of the outsiders practicing their own form of spirituality on land they felt rightfully belonged to them.
The skirmishes only intensified as the Rajneeshees doubled down on taking over the local government, and although they went to illegal lengths to establish control — including attempts by a devotee to murder the Rajneeshee’s doctor and the poisoning of 750 people with salmonella made on the compound — the pushback from locals who tried to drive the followers away revealed the story to be more layered than the Ways initially anticipated.
“We were trying to tap into a conversation about, well, what is the difference between cult and religion? What are religious minority rights? Where is everyone’s line of tolerance where they have to say, ‘Enough is enough, we can’t have these people take over my town anymore?’” says Maclain Way.
One criticism of the show posits that it glosses over some of Rajneeshees’ more egregious actions. After all, commune members caused the largest biochemical terror attack in the country with the mass salmonella poisoning, engaged in suspicious intra-group violence and cooked up a plot involving multi-state immigration fraud in order to gain political control. Brief scenes in the series showing group members beating each other as part of purging meditation exercises are never fully explained.
But the Ways say they did not worry about any potential imbalances in the series because they trusted audiences to judge the Rajneeshees’ actions as negative without having to totally condemn the commune. “We are interested in showing this to a mature audience that would be able to kind of push themselves to then hear from the people who did these things themselves, about why they did it,” says Maclain. The series includes interviews with several former members of the commune, all of whom have different reflections upon their time there.
Jane Stork, one woman featured in the series, who moved her family from Australia to the commune in search of enlightenment, now believes Rajneeshpuram was a cult that sowed destruction in eastern Oregon. She later wrote a book, called Breaking the Spell, that details her disenchantment with the group. On the other end of the spectrum is Philip Toelkes, known in the group as Swami Prem Niren, an attorney who still considers himself to be a follower of Rajneesh and now runs his own “conscious coaching” business.
The ambiguity has led some viewers to feel conflicted about how much they empathize with the Rajneeshees — many people joked online about how the red outfits and free love lifestyle would have totally convinced them to join the commune had they been around in the 1980s. Audiences also felt torn over their love for Ma Anand Sheela, the Bhagwan’s tough-talking second-in-command at the Oregon commune, who played an integral role in the Rajneeshees’ darker plots and later pleaded guilty to attempted murder, immigration fraud and orchestrating the salmonella outbreak. She served 29 months of a 20-year prison sentence.
Sheela, now 68 and living in Switzerland, is the showstopper of the documentary and seems to have no regrets about her actions at Rajneeshpuram. The Ways, who had heard from state and federal officials that she was “pure evil,” say they were “definitely a little timid and a little scared” when they flew out to meet her. They found her to be “smart, cunning and charming” — almost exactly how she appeared in 1980s television appearances talking up the Rajneeshees — and say she clearly still cares very much about the past.
“She definitely feels there was a lot of religious persecution and bigotry toward her group,” Chapman says. “She was going to go to all lengths to protect her commune and her master.”
Other former Rajneeshees were less willing to talk, feeling that past attempts to document what happened in Oregon, including a documentary by Oregon Public Broadcasting, were unfair, says Maclain. But devotees and Antelope residents alike eventually came around out of a reverence for preserving history — and until the series debuted on Netflix, the story of what happened at Rajneeshpuram had long remained hidden in news archives. According to Chapman, the incidents are not ingrained in the collective American memory largely because no one died due to the Rajneeshees’ crimes.
“You look at Jonestown, you look at Waco, you look at the death tolls those events had,” he says, referring to two infamous cults whose members died in great numbers. “This one was just easier to forget about over time.”
Though the Ways started making Wild Wild Country in 2014, two years before Donald Trump won the presidential election largely on a platform of stoking fears about immigrants and religious minorities, the series hit Netflix as such topics continue to dominate national conversation. The timing didn’t go unnoticed by the bothers, and Wild Wild Country presents an American tale as old as time.
“I joke around, but it was honestly comforting as an American to realize we have always struggled with these issues. What’s happening to our country isn’t just new right now,” Chapman says. “Every generation has dealt with these issues.”
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