Anyone who has ever lived in, or been drawn to, Oregon, its coastal villages, conifer forests, big cities or high-desert might feel a slight tug of interest when hearing of the new Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country” about a spiritual commune that arrived in the early 1980s, almost as if from outer space, to settle into the rugged hills of north-central Oregon.  Any who follow their curiosity and begin to watch the six part series will be unable to click the remote until it’s over.

Just try not to binge watch.

Young film makers Chapman Way and Maclain Way (The Battered Bastards of Baseball), while working on another film stumbled onto a trove of some 300 hours of Rajneesh-taken film footage.  Too young to have experienced the events themselves, they were drawn into what they discovered and set out to help us see, or recall what we might have heard or seen at the time.

With excellently paced use of old footage and new, recent, interviews, slow motion and quick motion, close-up and distance shots, a sound track recorded at the time and some composed for the film, we are drawn into a story, which as one of the locals says, “was just incredible.”  A story that, for many of the devotees was, and still is, the most meaningful of their lives, for the FBI was the “largest mass poisoning, the largest wire-tapping and the largest immigration fraud” in American history.

The Ways manage to tell the story in a way that lets us see the oddity of all sides of the population without demonizing any of them.   They don’t have an agenda pro-or-anti Rajneeshees, pro-or-anti small town Christians, pro-or-anti big government with its raids and subpoenas.  Even we, with our prejudices, are warmed with sympathy and pricked with judgment for all involved; we wonder how we might have behaved if on one side or the other, or the other….  Nor is it hard to transfer the events, feelings and behavior of people then to modern-day, thirty-five year later America: fervent believers, worried onlookers; perceived strangeness vs actual values conflict  – sexual, environmental, legal; devotional blindness, paranoia, the quick turn to guns

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Antelope, OR, is barely a town,  pop 50, 60 miles from the Colombia river border between Washington and Oregon,  an hour and a half drive to The Dalles, (pop 14,000), country seat of Wasco County, and three hours from Portland, three and a half from the state Capitol, Salem.  It is out there.

In 1981 a Madras, Oregon lawyer, representing a group described as “Followers of Indian spiritual leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh,” based in New Jersey, bought 68,000 acres of dry rugged land close to Antelope, known as The Big Muddy Ranch for $6 million.  The townsfolk of Antelope speculated, of course.  What was this about?  Who had that kind of money? To do what?

Within months cars and busloads of people began arriving, homesteading.  Building supplies and construction equipment. Through the streets of a very very quiet town hundreds of new comers began strolling — all dressed in shades of orange, red and maroon – men with long hair, women in overalls, all with a small framed picture of a long-haired man with wide sympathetic eyes and hands raised in devotion.

It didn’t take long for things to move from faintly mysterious to ominous.  As one of the townspeople interviewed in the film says. “Right away they started to have all the roads around them closed so people couldn’t come in.  The Bhagwan himself arrived soon, proprietor of a dozen or more Rolls Royces.  Land that was zoned for agriculture was turned into an incorporated city four times the size of Antelope, with its own restaurants, malls, police and fire departments.

1983 Rajneeshpuram Festival, By Samvado Gunnar Kossatz,

Soon, a film of a naked encounter group while the group was still in India, taken by a former devotee,  made its way to the Antelope theater; it wasn’t just touchy feely.  It was screaming, moaning and physical assault.

Not only were the Rajneeshees active in the rural property, they had a presence in Portland, with a night-club (Zorba the Buddha,) a hotel, a bakery and a meditation center.  In 1983, two years after the group arrived, the Hotel Rajneesh was bombed  leading to the formation on the property of a volunteer Rajneesh Security Force, which according to news accounts at the time “walked around the commune carrying Uzis and drove a Jeep with a .30-caliber machine gun mounted on it into town.” In the documentary’s trailer, those in the town explain that they believed the heavily armed force was a military-style threat.

As fears and investigations grew, militant response began to overwhelm the initial live-and-let-love ethos of the followers.  Arranged marriages were carried out in various states to avoid immigration laws and recruit wealthy members. An attempted murder of a country official failed.  Widespread salmonella poisoning hit nearby restaurants. Homeless people across US were recruited to be part of the family.  Buses were ready.  In days or hours, enthused and unvetted strangers left familiar streets to begin new lives in Oregon.  When some of them turned out to be unwilling to do the work expected, or showed various mental disorders, they were “uninvited” and dumped on the streets of Oregon towns; no bus ticket home.  All of this brought the attention not only of local police and town-councils but the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Much of the story-arc is told in the film, and much will be new even to those who followed the story at the time. Most impressive are the portions of Super-8 movie footage taken on the grounds, in the meetings and in the joy of early beginnings.   Even a good film leaves a lot unsaid, however.  As I watched I wondered, early on, where the money was coming from. Until later, when Hollywood celebrities got involved, little was said.  Who sold the high-capacity guns, at what cost, with what notice to the local communities?  What more was known about the earlier expulsion from India for alleged corruption?

Three of the early devotees, along with Sheela, the Bhagwan’s chief organizer and enforcer, are the principal ‘talking-heads’ of the film.  They are articulate narrators of those years,  with which they are still bound.  They are reflective however, only to a degree.  Despite one of them having been a designated, and willing, assassin, (she failed,) no repentance is voiced. Despite living through the events they tell of, with a kind of primal blindness to what they were participating in, not one says, ‘How could I have done this? What was I thinking? How did such dreams go so bad? ”

Which is of course what we want to know, today, with cults rising around charismatic leaders, absolutely sure about what time will show to have been a mirage, and injurious to many if not dangerous to all.

WITH a Netflix account you can watch it here https://www.netflix.com/title/80145240

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The hotel bombing, by the way, was not local Portlanders or Antelopians trying to scare the group off.  Within days a suspect was arrested,within two years sentenced to prison for the deed.  [And that is an even more bizarre story. (Here, here and here.)]

Here are some reviews, links to articles about the sect and the events of the film,  and excerpts for interviews with the film makers.

Wild Wild Country – Review

Wild Wild Country Season 1 Review

Wiki on the town, Rajneeshpuram.

A long remembrance and critique by a former follower, Christopher Calder.

A long, well documented series of articles from The Oregonian, including a series that was done at the time.

Interview

…we started with over 300 hours of archive and over 100 hours of interviews we had shot, and we had to whittle that down. It was supposed to be six one-hour episodes, but we usually went over a little on each, so it was more like six and ½ hours.

This is quite a scandalous true story, and there are two perspectives, two warring sides throughout. Those involved in Rajneeshpuram and then the towns [Antelope] people, politicians etc.  How did you go about balancing that and staying objective? Because you two did a great job of that.

Maclain Way: Thank you! Honestly, from very early on we tried to stay away from having personal judgements of certain people. And really, we were just interested in hearing the words from the people that lived it and went through it themselves. We are not usually documentary filmmakers that will reach out to someone who had just written a book on this because its not that their opinion/perspective isn’t valuable, because it is, but its just for us, with our talking head documentaries, we like the people who were on the ground. We did try to incorporate two very different perspectives of the same event that had happened.

You’ll find that mostly between the Rajneesh camp and the Antelope camp. Really, that’s what the story was for us. I’m always happy when someone says that we stayed objective, and I’ll take that compliment, but that was the story. It helped serve the story and made it a better one to tell. It was about how these two groups became entrenched in a war with each other. And as current viewers you watch it and think “are they ever going to take a step towards compromise or mediation or conflict resolution?” As we researched the story and spoke with both sides of these two different camps, it just seemed like they were going farther, and farther apart as the story unfolds. So, that was always our objective.

WILD WILD COUNTRY Interview: Chapman & Maclain Way, Directors

‘Wild Wild Country’ Duo On Dissecting Real-Life Mix Of Guns, Gurus, Right And Wrong – Sundance Studio

Interview at All Things Considered, NPR. 

 

I dare you not to be astounded!