A Story of Love and Hate: Netflix’s Wild Wild Country

This new docu-series on a cult established in Oregon in the 1980s is a timely exercise in tolerance and a fascinating insight into extremism

Once again, we’re infatuated with cults, nearly half a century since the headline groups of the late 1960s and ’70s – The Family International, The Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate and Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple – gave the term the weight of an inevitable, dirty mistake. Now it seems that we’ve reached peak nostalgia for that era, where the horrors perpetrated by the above have passed into history books and we can pretend their actions are that of another society. Just like fashion and music, vintage beliefs eventually become charming.

The last few years have seen an uptick of cult-focused media: podcasts such as Cults (2017–ongoing), You Must Remember Manson (2017–ongoing), a best-selling novel (Emma Cline’s 2016 The Girls) and a spate of television shows on the subject, including Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015–ongoing), Waco (2018) and now, Netflix’s Wild Wild Country (2018), a six part documentary miniseries about the Rajneesh movement and their brief but controversial residency in America in the 1980s.

00-story-wild-country.jpg

Chapman and Maclain Way, Wild Wild Country, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

Chapman and Maclain Way, Wild Wild Country, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

Compared to other groups, the Rajneeshees, named after their founder, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or ‘Osho’, have been a footnote of cult history. This is surprising, considering that its 7,000 followers (sannyasins) – best known for dressing exclusively in orange, pink, red and maroon uniforms – erected a fully functional, incorporated city on farmland in rural Oregon, the Rajneeshpuram; committed one of the largest bio-terror attacks in American history (infecting 751 people with salmonella in an attempt to curb voter turnout in a local election and aid their own candidate) and plotted to assassinate a US Attorney. Most likely, this story lingered in the shadows of cult history because of the Peoples Temple’s 907-person mass suicide via poisoned Kool Aid in 1978, which occurred only a few years before the events in Oregon. (Interestingly, the daughter of Representative Leo Ryan, who the Peoples Temple assassinated shortly before their mass suicide in Guyana, was a Rajneeshee.) Enter Netflix.

5ab2d7a21f0000260616b187.jpg

Chapman and Maclain Way, Wild Wild Country, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

Told using a combination of new and vintage footage of both ex-Rajneeshee and conservative Oregonians, by brother-directors Chapman and Maclain Way, Wild Wild Country is masterful at manipulating its audiences’ alliances, never settling into a fixed perspective on the situation. In the beginning, the Rajneeshees seemed headed toward utopia. Sure, they were naive and isolationist, but their project was a distinctly American one: find a plot of land and make your own world. It seems hard to fault them for this mission, with its core appeal to the ‘American dream’, and yet, this is exactly what the citizens of the local town of Antelope, 18 miles away, do.

vf_wild_wild_country_main_4748.jpg

Chapman and Maclain Way, Wild Wild Country, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

Chapman and Maclain Way, Wild Wild Country, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

This tiny town of less than 60 conservative retirees are disgusted by the social experiment occurring up the road from them. They are unapologetically xenophobic and remain difficult to sympathize with. When they conclude that the Rajneeshee pose a threat to their way of life, they greet them with guns. In reaction, the Rajneeshee arm themselves ten-fold, introduce gun-wielding patrols and eventually turn to real estate thuggery and direct violence in order to occupy Antelope. As they see it, they are victims in a long lineage of religious persecution, and brute force is their only course of action. The viewing experience is a relevant, timely exercise in tolerance, and a fascinating treatment of the most extreme relationships that arise in the great American diversity experiment.

i-covered-the-rajneesh-cult-heres-what-wild-wild-country-leaves-out-1900x1266_c.jpg

Chapman and Maclain Way, Wild Wild Country, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

Chapman and Maclain Way, Wild Wild Country, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

Usually, the coverage given to cults succeeds at depicting controversy and fails to convey that most fundamental phenomenon constitutive of any sect: a deep faith in the leader. I have to assume that all these figures had some kind of charisma – Manson’s gaze, Osho’s ‘presence’ – but it’s a difficult quality to capture on film. The result often leaves the viewer alienated and unable to sympathize with either the followers or the leader, transforming a cult’s devotion into a ‘McGuffin’, a meaningless plot engine.

27-wild-wild-country.w710.h473.jpg

Chapman and Maclain Way, Wild Wild Country, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

For most of Wild Wild Country, Osho is a worthy blank slate. After years of charismatic public speaking in India, he takes a vow of silence, and so does the film toward him, offering little about his motivations and principles. He is a passive figure while his ‘disciples’, particularly those in the leadership committee led by his secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, become increasingly proactive in steering the direction of their intentional community. (In fact, this is what ultimately saves him from punitive legal action.) The most we come to know about Osho is that he rejects marriage, fetishizes shiny things (most famously the Rolls-Royce he used for his daily ‘drive-bys’ through Rajneeshpuram) and holds his hands in prayer position any time a camera is aimed in his direction. But through silence he gains gravitas, and enough mystery to allow for the possibility of his enlightenment. Later, when he does speak after Sheela’s sudden departure following a murder attempt on Osho’s doctor, this possibility deflates – he is full of spite, malice and sexism for his former secretary; he denounces her to the world by calling her names and suggesting that she operated without his consent. Beyond that, nothing he says has the slightest whiff of wisdom. For me, this was the moment, the film turned on its subject.

Retrospectively, however, all the actions of the Rajneeshee dissolve into a cautionary tale. To further emphasize this, the series includes a few clips from the German documentary, Ashram in Poona, secretly shot by Wolfgang Dobrowolny in 1978 on the sannyasins in India. The film depicts a bearded Rajneeshee (not Osho) presiding over a group of pretty, young, fully-nude acolytes, encouraging them to attack and scream at each other in tongues. It’s shocking, and when the film was screened in Oregon during the height of Rajneeshpuram, it fuelled local paranoia. Watching the video now, the exhortations look like an extreme version of the cathartic protests happening all across the world at the time. But perhaps the effect of the video is somewhat muted in our current moment when extreme exercise routines and vomit-inducing ayahuasca ceremonies are in fashion, and yoga studios and retreats (many with their own questionable leaders and alt-Hindu ideologies) are within a stone’s throw of every quaint American town.

Main image: Chapman and Maclain Way, Wild Wild Country, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

Ross Simonini is a writer, artist and musician living between New York and Northern California, USA.

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018