Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh docu-series ‘Wild, Wild Country’ — Yes, It’s That Good

wild_wild_country_posterI really enjoyed the new Netflix docu-series “Wild Wild Country,” which you may have heard about. It was released last month and has been garnering some positive reviews and tons of online buzz.

It’s the story, told over six, hour-long episodes, of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his devotees, known as Rajneeshis.

Thousands of the disciples, from both India and many other countries, followed him from India to the U.S., where they built a commune in the early 1980s outside a tiny town in Central Oregon.

The orange-clad followers clashed with locals and authorities before ultimately…well, you’ll have to give it a watch to see how it ends (if you don’t already know).

Some of the things I loved about the series:

  • The directors, Chapman and MacLain Way, manged to portray sympathetically not just members of the Bhagwan cult, but also the town’s residents, with many long interviews in which participants in the saga shared their first-person accounts. (Many were in the twenties or thirties during the time the events took place, so are now in their fifties or sixties.)
  • The series contains on a ton of contemporaneous footage, from local TV news accounts that aired at the time to what looks like footage shot by Rajneeshis themselves to document goings on at their commune.
  • The music is fantastic, really adding emotional content. (Some reviews I’ve read say the music is too overbearing, but I quite liked it.)

I’ve been digging around to try to learn more about the movement (don’t worry — just out of curiosity, not in a desire to join it!). Here are some resources I’ve found:

Update, April 7: Columbia Journalism Review has an interview with Les Zaitz, the Oregonian investigative reporter featured in the series.

He reveals what it was like report on the story, recounts his trip to India to learn more about Bhagwan and Sheela, and more. The close quote:

I’ve always been struck by just how dangerous and evil some of these people were. I’m not sure the Netflix series has accurately captured that. This was not just a group of people that lost their way. This was a very dangerous group that put a lot of lives at risk.

2 replies on “Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh docu-series ‘Wild, Wild Country’ — Yes, It’s That Good”

Just finished the series – totally agree on the music – it lent the story tremendous depth. Though as an “impressionist” documentary, it was frustratingly short on keeping a coherent timeline and left some of my bigger questions unanswered:
– how exactly did the ashram staff extract money from all these foolish over-educated white hippies? the only example I gleaned was the ironic case of the member whose parent had died in the Jonestown massacre leaving a sizable insurance policy which was signed over to the Bhagwan)
– drugs – were they rampant or absent? Either case would be a remarkable.
Some of the editing was so good that the interview audio from 30 years later seemed to perfectly splice with the news footage. Really a tremendous document about a bizarre episode that nonetheless forced important questions about social tolerance and organization.

All great questions, Matt. I chatted with a pal here in India about the monetary aspect, and he pointed out that the Bhagwan was an established figure here for many years — like a decade — before setting out for Oregon. So perhaps if he had tens of millions of supporters, and they each donated funds for years, he could built up quite a fortune.

On the issue of drugs, it’s true that there wasn’t much mention; perhaps the figures from the commune only agreed to participate in interviews if certain subjects weren’t discussed. Who knows. Meanwhile, I have heard rumblings online from Oregonians present during the episode that the show actually paints a much more favorite portrait of the cult than they would have liked, glossing over issues like the attempted murders and poisonings, FWIF. They were discussed in the doc, but perhaps not given the weight some would have preferred.

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