‘Wild Wild Country’: Is Subject of Netflix Doc Really a ‘Sex Cult’?
On the surface, the Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country appears to be the latest addition to the utopian-commune-turned-cult cannon. But only a few minutes into the first episode, it’s evident that this veers far from the traditional narrative, complete with one of the largest bioterrorism attacks on U.S. soil, murder plots, machine gun drills, large-scale voter fraud and hundreds of people wearing red and orange creating a city from scratch in the desert.
Over six one-hour segments, the directors – brothers Chapman and Maclain Way – tell the story of how the followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh relocated from an ashram in Pune to a ranch in rural Oregon, where they built their version of utopia, despite opposition from the nearby residents of Antelope (population: 40). While at first it appears that the focus will be on the sannyasins (those who have given up material possessions in favor of a more spiritual life), their efforts to build and sustain Rajneeshpuram (their technologically advanced and environmentally friendly version of heaven on earth) and their devotion to Bhagwan (their leader, later known as Osho), it quickly becomes apparent that is not the main plot of Wild Wild Country.
That would be the rise and fall of Bhagwan’s personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, who wielded much of the group’s power during the Oregon commune’s brief existence, from 1981 to 1985. During her reign as the de facto leader of the group – when Bhagwan was in a three-and-a-half-year period of silence – Sheela acted both as his spokesperson as well as the manager of day-to-day operations on the ranch. In this role, she facilitated the group’s move to Oregon and, according to the documentary, attempted to secure the future of Rajneeshpuram through any means necessary, including allegedly orchestrating a mass poisoning of a town, bussing in hundreds of homeless people and registering them to vote in order to influence the outcome of a local election. In addition to that, Sheela also convinced fellow sannyasin Jane Stork – who is also interviewed in the docuseries – to try and murder Bhagwan’s doctor. Though unsuccessful, both women were convicted of attempted murder and served jail sentences.
Through a mix of archival footage from existing documentaries and media coverage from the 1980s, paired with recent original interviews with current and former members, the Way brothers created an instantly popular, extremely bingeable series that shines a light on a fascinating yet overlooked chapter in recent American history.
However, some of the current and former sannyasins featured in the docuseries – as well as others who weren’t – felt as though they were not accurately represented in the series, and that they were painted with the same brush as megalomaniac Sheela. Speaking with Rolling Stone, they emphasized that most of the group lived blissfully unaware of Sheela’s Machiavellian maneuvers – and many of those who were cognizant of it either attempted to stop her, or at least actively looked forward to the day when her regime collapsed.
Sunny Massad (aka Ma Prem Sunshine), one of the former sannyasins interviewed in Wild Wild Country, decided to participate because Maclain Way called her and told her that he wanted to do something different than anything that had been done on the group before.
“He wanted to know why people there were so genuinely joyous,” Massad, who worked in press relations at Rajneeshpuram, tells Rolling Stone. “I told him that I had been burned by so many journalists in the past…[I] believed that he genuinely was going to do a story about the people that lived in the community – not just the few people who destroyed it.”
She does think that the docuseries accurately portrays the narrow part of the story of Rajneeshpuram that featured Sheela and the small group in charge, but says that the filmmakers didn’t adequately cover what was going on among the rank and file at the commune, “nor did they cover what was going on at the Ranch in the hearts and minds of over 5,000 residents in their day to day lives there.”
Similarly, Hira Bluestone – who moved to Rajneeshpuram with her parents in 1981 and lived there until the commune’s collapse in late 1985 – says that she was disappointed that the series simply retold what was portrayed in the news at the time rather than adding to the story by highlighting the lives that the vast majority of the sannyasins led. “They only sannyasins interviewed were those in the upper echelons of sannyasin society,” Bluestone tells Rolling Stone. “We all lived this beautiful, interesting, flawed world, pretending that we didn’t see what was going on above us.”
Stork – the former sannyasin who was a pawn in one of Sheela’s alleged murder plots and is featured in Wild Wild Country – on the other hand, is pleased with the final product. She tells Rolling Stone that the Way brothers “have done excellent work” and created “an exciting, understandable, non-judgmental, thought-provoking documentary series.”
“By telling this story without bias or judgement, Chapman and Maclain allow the viewer to form their own opinion of the story, and my guess is that most viewers will be surprised to find that they, at different times, can sympathize with both points of view,” says Stork, who wrote about her experience in her memoir Breaking the Spell. “This is the great service of Wild Wild Country. It presents a dramatic story of social conflict that just about anybody can relate to.”
Chapman Way tells Rolling Stone that they interviewed many current and former sannyasins for the series, “but ultimately…ended up choosing the characters that are in the series to represent the story.” Along the same lines, Maclain Way says that they had “so many archival interviews of everyday sannyasins” that they believed that their voices were being represented.
According to a press release sent to Rolling Stone from Osho International Foundation – the nonprofit organization that has managed Osho’s intellectual property since his deportation from the United States in 1985 – Wild Wild Country “fails to explore the key aspects [of the story of Rajneeshpuram] and so does not give a clear account of the real story behind the story.” Primarily, the organization views the fall of Rajneeshpuram as a government conspiracy aimed at thwarting Osho’s vision of a community based on conscious living.
When Natalia Singer visited Rajneeshpuram as a journalist in 1982, she expected to find a situation similar to Jim Jones’s People’s Temple group – which collapsed in the 1978 mass death in Jonestown – but instead met people who were articulate, with no signs of brainwashing. “I talked to people who were nuanced and smart and funny and did not seem inclined to leave their critical thinking skills at the door,” she tells Rolling Stone.
Singer, who wrote about her time at Rajneeshpuram in her memoir Scraping By in the Big Eighties, says that what she admires most about the docuseries is that it gives the principal actors and stakeholders the opportunities to tell their stories and explain their motives. “In the end we may judge them ourselves, but we are given a chance to understand them,” she adds.
Conversely, Anand Harp, a former sannyasin who lived at Rajneeshpuram – who was also part of the small film crew who shot the original footage of the commune used in the docuseries – was not pleased with the group’s representation.
“To be clear, we were in no way, shape, or form the homicidal, terrorist, sex-crazed cult we are smeared as being,” he tells Rolling Stone. “We were actually anything but. It was the commune leadership who drank the Kool-Aid and went off the rails. For Wild Wild Country viewers to conflate what became a treacherous power struggle of ‘us versus them’ with the ethos and character of the entire community, is a distortion of truth.”
Given the massive scope of the topic, was it even possible to adequately and accurately portray all parties involved?
“The sort-of semi-reductive, but unfortunate, truthful answer is that we had about six hours to tell the story and we left out quite a bit of everybody’s side stories,” co-executor producer Mark Duplass tells Rolling Stone. “And I think everyone could have a valid argument that they were not as fully represented as they could have been. But I think, narratively speaking, I would stand by the job we did with the six hours to give a pretty well-rounded representation of all groups.”
Though the six-hour series may seem like a lot, in reality, much was left on the cutting room floor in favor of focusing on some of the more sensationalized aspects of the group. Footage of what appears to be an orgy in the first episode is part of a 1981 documentary called Ashram in Poona, allegedly filmed in secret in India. Much of the media coverage of sannyasins – from the early 1980s and today – honed in on these segments of the documentary, referring to the group as a “sex cult.” But according to several former residents of Rajneeshpuram, this is a misrepresentation and argue that Wild Wild Country leaves out or breezes past many more important aspects of life as a sannyasin.
“When you watch the hundreds of lectures that Osho gave, sex plays a very small part,” Massad explains. “His main message about that was that repressing sex does not make you a more spiritual person, as is so often depicted in traditional religions.”
Chapman Way is aware of how the residents of Rajneeshpuram have been portrayed, and says that the filmmakers’ aim was to provide a nuanced portrayal of the sannyasins. “This was remembered as this terrorist sex cult,” he says. “And I think a large part of our story was peeling back the cultural and political layers of the time and getting to know the people who joined this commune, and you get to see that they are human beings, and they are people with families and they are just like everyone else.”