Wild Wild Country (Netflix) (2018)
One of the most ambitious and far-reaching documentary series yet released by Netflix, Wild Wild Country tells the story of the great utopian experiment of Rajneeshpuram, a community constructed in rural Oregon in 1981 by Rajneeshees, followers of the Indian spiritual guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, later known as Osho. Planned as a community centred on meditation, collective labour and freedom of personal expression, the settlement quickly amassed followers in the years following its construction, and was briefly incorporated as a city, replete with its own education system, police force, commercial district and international airport, all of which drastically changed the topography of what had previously been a barren stretch of ranch land. As Rajneeshees poured in from across America and the world, the population rose to around 7000, causing no small amount of consternation from the residents of Antelope, the nearest town, whose population was barely a hundredth of that of Rajneeshpuram at its most developed. Fearing the philosophy and ideology of this city that had suddenly arisen on its doorstep, the Antelope community mounted an increasingly militant resistance to the arrival of the Rajneeshees, resulting in a series of stand-offs that would culminate, in 1984, with the first and single most sustained example of biological warfare committed on American soil, and a series of prison sentences for some of the key architects of the community, for charges that ranged from attempted murder and conspiracy to murder, to those of arson, immigration fraud and bioterrorism.
From that plot summary alone, you could be forgiven for thinking that Wild Wild Country was on the side of Antelope, and aligned against the community that arrived to supplant its residents. Part of what makes the documentary so powerful, however, is the way it resists that more obvious reading, blurring the accountability and agency between the two parties throughout its middle episodes, before challenging the viewer to consider the impossible situation within which the Rajneeshi community had been placed for its final episode. Key to that process is a series of sustained interviews with prominent members of Rajneeshpuram, most notably Sheela Birnstiel, known as Ma Anand Sheela, who had been the Bhaghwan’s personal secretary in India, and had more or less single-handedly envisioned and executed the community’s relocation to the United States. Joining her is Philip Toelkes, known as Swami Prem Niren, an American lawyer who joined the community in India and then returned with it to Oregon, and who became the key legal representative for both the Bhagwan and the city of Rajneeshpuram when the federal government pressed charges during the later stages of the narrative. Finally, there is Jane Stork, known as Ma Shanti B, an Australian woman who also joined the community in India and relocated to America, where she became Sheela’s most trusted advisor, and complicit in her crimes, spending time in an American penitentiary before relocating to Germany, and then returning to Australia.
While these different figures all played a key role in the formation of the community, they all end up in quite divergent places, a fact that, from the outset, allows the documentary to resist any one dismissive or pathological reading of the community as a whole. No doubt, that’s heavily contradicted by the American politicans and lawyers who were charged with investigating it at the time, most of whom were Republicans or conservatives, but their testimony is also offset by the sheer amount of archival footage testifying to the functionality and the joy of the community itself, since Rajneeshpuram was nothing if not fastidious in documenting every facet of its existence for the sake of posterity. So abundant is this footage, and so eloquently does it sync up with the key recounts, that it’s initially almost impossible to believe that it’s all real, since it often seems to have been compiled, in the first place, for precisely this kind of retrospective and reparative treatment of the city.
It’s not just the candid interviews or the archival footage that shifts sympathy to the Rajneeshees, however, but the way in which the townsfolk of Antelope register their distaste for them, since it’s from this original distaste that the state of Oregon, and then the United States government, generates its mission of forcing the community out of the country. While there may be all kinds of inchoate ways in which the townsfolk express their dislike, most of them boil down to the discomfort of finding themselves in an inverted settler narrative, in which the Rajneeshees recapitulate the rhetoric of American westward expansion, referring to Rajneeshpuram as the “promised land” and as “Shangri-La,” but without the white Christian mission that gave the settler narrative meaning in the first place. As if in some kind of hallucinatory return of the repressed, the inhabitants of Antelope are now forced to endure Indians buying up land that was original “bought” from American Indians during the process of colonization – a spectacle that both confronts the Antelope locals with their deepest assumptions of their claims to the land, but also with a ideology and philosophy that seems inexorably alien to everything they hold dear. No surprise, then, that they quickly come to refer to the Rajneeshees as the “red people,” on the basis of their trademark warm-hued costumes, conflating American Indians and communists to evoke an unbearable threat that approaches both from within and without.
What ensues is almost a classical Western narrative in which the white characters now find themselves assigned the role once held by the Indians, as one particular member of the town laments this as “the kind of conflict that used to be settled with a shoot-out” – an attitude that Sheela bluntly dismisses as part of the broader “Mayflower mentality” of American culture. Watching these white conservative folk forced to conceive of themselves as colonial subjects is quite fascinating, not least because it exposes the violence of colonialism in at least two quite different ways. First, the violence of surveillance becomes quite prominent, to the point where being photographed by Rajneeshees becomes the greatest violation imaginable to the townsfolk, not merely because it places them in the position of exotic curios and relics from an earlier era, but because it also ensures that their bigotry remains documented and archived for future reference. Second, the violence of nomenclature becomes particularly visible, since the first and most traumatic import of the Rajneeshees’ gradual control of the town is their license to rename the streets and establishments using their own vocabulary and ideology. No surprise, then, that the first thing the townsfolk do after the Rajneeshees are forced to leave is to tear down this Indian nomenclature and reinstate “Main Street,” although even then it’s clear that some deep violence has been done to the naturalisation of English place names, with one resident after another reflecting that the town never felt the same after the Indian community had left.
On their own terms, these gestures from the Antelope townsfolk would be fairly repugnant, but it’s only a matter of time before they start to gravitate and congeal into a full-blown rhetoric of terror, with one local after another threatening to shoot “reds” on sight, in a horrific recapitulation of frontier bloodshed. Far from being a terrorist outfit in itself, the town of Rajneeshpuram prompts terrorist sentiment from the local community, who band together for one – literally – terrifying pronouncement after another. During these early scenes, Wild Wild Country performs a deft sleight of hand, momentatily positioning the “cult” of the Bhaghan within a lineage of American domestic terrorism, only to gradually reveal that it’s the townsfolk who occupy that position. As much as the community might be bombarded with hysterical analogies between Rajneeshpuram and Jonestown, then, the documentary makes it quite clear that Jim Jones’ Christian extremism had more in common with the residents of Antelope than with the Bhagwan. In fact, one of the key members of the community is Shannon Jo Ryan, daughter of Congressman Leo Ryan, who was murdered at Jonestown, and who continuously and publically positions Rajneeshpuram as the very antithesis of the community and circumstances that resulted in her father’s untimely death.
As the series proceeds the thus townsfolk mobilise anti-terrorist rhetoric against the Rajneeshees, despite the fact that they are, in many ways, the main sources of terror. In doing so, Wild Wild Country beautifully evokes the ways in which discrimination results from anxieties about pleasure, and anxieties about who can experience pleasure, since, from the way the Antelope residents talk about it, you’d think that “the sound of orgasmic experiences all day and all night” at Rajneeshpuram was the biggest threat to American security since the attack on Pearl Harbour. It’s not just sexual pleasure that disarms the townsfolk, though, but a kind of pleasure more peculiar to the conservative mindset – the pleasure of inhabiting American democracy, American values, and values themselves, more absolutely than any other party. What makes the Rajneeshees so interesting, from that angle, is that they work entirely within the ambit of democracy, at least in the opening stages – or at least don’t depart from it any more drastically than their critics. Moreover, they outdo the townsfolk at their own frontier affectations as well, and increasingly frame their settlement in the very terms that conservatives might mobilise to dismiss them: “If anything is democratic and American, it’s Rajneeshpuram, not the outside. This is home.”
With the rhetoric of democracy, America and “homeliness” aligned against them, the townsfolk, and their broader set of connections, now find themselves faced with a dissonant series of circumstances whereby radicals hold the majority power and rhetorical wield of “democratic values” that conservatives typically enjoy and relish as their own. Marginalised in ways that dismantle the pleasure of conservatism, the townsfolk thus increasingly reveal the extent to which white terror is really antithetical to democracy, even as it depends upon democratic rhetoric for its lifeblood, as well as the lengths that white conservatives are prepared to go to in order to thwart the democratic process in the name of their supposed “rights.” While the Antelope townsfolk might lambast the Rajneeshees for bringing in homeless people to pad their votes, they’re more than prepared to contact the military to stand guard and protect booths from the “wrong” kind of votes, despite the fact that all the homeless arrivals are well within their rights to vote in the local election once they’ve established residence at the community. Similarly, as much as the Antelope residents might feel nostalgic for the former quietness of their community, it becomes clear that quietness and marginality are not the same thing, since the slightest whiff of being minoritised within their own land leads to them to broker a surprising number of powerful connections, from the Oregon Attorney General, who is a friend of one of the townsfolk, to Bill Bowerman, founder of NIKE, who lives in Antelope, and becomes one of their most emphatic crusaders.
That all, inevitably, affects the way in which the film understands Rajneeshpuram, since what appears to be a sleepy town of about seventy residents actually turns out to be both a synecdoche and a confluence for the power and hypocrisy of American conservative rhetoric during the Reagan years. Challenging Antelope thus quickly segues into challening the federal government and, finally, the entire mythos of American history, as the Bhagwan and Sheela offer a vision of the United States in which white hegemony has already been historicised as a peculiarity and anomaly that their community is in the process of healing. It’s not just the “executive” of Rajneeshpuram who feel this either, since the residents are as articulate as anyone else, including one man who frames his arrival as a second iteration of the great wave of American immigration that shaped the nation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – the same historical matrix so critical to India’s own movement away from colonisation – except with “no Ellis Island, no slaving in factories.” Beyond a certain point, that requires Rajneeshpuram to reject democracy itself, or at least reject democracy that has any affiliation with what the Bhagwan describes as the “neocolonial, imperialistic, technocratic society of the United States of Oppression,” turning their critics’ vocabulary against them in quite a disarming, articulate and vehement manner.
As might be expected, that produces an enormously visceral and convulsive challenge to the pleasure of conservative critics, resulting in a series of hyperbolised responses that perists right up to the present day, where the key figures in the investigation use comparisons to Hitler and terms like “pure evil” in referring to the Bhagwan and its followers. The hysteria is even greater at the time, from the initial refusal to allow the Bhagwan to stay in the country as a religious leader, to the FBI’s eventual insistence on preventing him leaving the country privately for the purpose of striking a deal that would force him to leave the country a couple of weeks later anyway. Part of the dexterity of the series lies in the blankness, or neutrality, with which it presents this conservative footage past and present, filling out the space around it so as to gradually draw out its sanctimonious disingenuity, without ever quite prescribing a combative response either, if only because that would be to capitulate to give the combat rhetoric of the conservatives too much credence. In any case, Sheela is more than capable of providing that response, and it’s quite extraordinary to witness the irreverence and piercing brilliance with which she responds to one hypocritical pronouncent after another, especially once the Bhagwan abandons her to broker an alliance with the American media, leaving her as sole spokesperson for the original radical impulse of the city.
Of course, there is another aspect to this whole story – the criminal aspect – and the series makes no attempts to hide this, detailing the mass food poisoning that some members of Rajneeshpuram directed against the town of The Dalles, Oregon, along with the plans that were apparently concocted by Sheela to assassinate US Attorney Charles S. Turner, who was one of the original and most vehement opponents to Rajneeshpuram. These crimes, both actual and attempted, are a matter of public record, and, up until this point, constituted the main narrative – the only narrative, really – of what occurred at the Oregon community. What Wild Wild Country offers, instead, is an incisive and sustained consideration of what radical action really means, painting a picture in which it is the Antelope townsfolk, and Oregon establishment, who first introduce radical action into the equation, only for that radicalism to remain invisible until the Rajneeshees incorporate it into their own rhetoric as well. Long before any of their own more serious crimes occurred, the Rajneeshee’s hotel in Portland was bombed, and while a radical Islamic group may have taken credit, it’s so continuous with the threats made by the townsfolk that it’s not hard to see how a siege mentality could easily have taken place. At the very least, it feels clear that none of the more serious crimes would have occurred if the Antelope residents had minded their own business, and in many ways that’s the ultimate message of the film, which never justifies Sheela’s actions, but simply demands the proper context and lens for comprehending them.
At the same time, it has to be said that Wild Wild Country doesn’t merely offer a middlebrow message about understanding both parties either. There’s a powerful message buried in here about the impossibility of resisting conservatism without radicalising, and even the impossibility of fulfilling the promise of American democracy with radicalising, that remains powerfully relevant in the neoconservative nation ushered in by the election of Trump. In the end, the most suspicious thing about the Rajneeshees is their combination of a radically peaceful lifestyle with a refusal to submit to passive resistance in the face of terror, a combination the American media at the time couldn’t compute, but which feels more timely than ever in the wake of Trump’s rise to power. In Swami Prem Niren’s terms, that made Rajneeshpuram analogous to a Gurdjieffien “device,” a self-consuming disruption that would offer a blueprint for future disruptions, and a step towards “deprogramming America…from dirty politicans, from fanatic religions, from all kinds of hypocrisy”. Of course, the series isn’t recommending that the audience follow in Sheela’s footsteps, but she remains its charismatic kernel – she is the last to speak, and directly addresses the audience in her final words – and its horizon of possibilities, however inchoate or imperfectly realised.
In the last days of Rajneeshpuram, the Bhaghwan – soon to be Osho – dismantled it as a religion, encouraging his followers to burn their sacred texts, and divesting them of the need to wear red-coloured costumes. In the later parts of the documentary, too, all the followers, from Sheela to Swami, seem to have dismantled it to some extent in their minds and lives, but only for the sake of contemplating how that destruction might itself be a vehicle for future political and economic progress. Without ever justifying Sheela’s actions, the documentary’s final indictment is directed at that failure, and the social conditions that contributed to making it a foregone conclusion within American culture at the time. And in that gesture lies one of the most provocative and pregnant series Netflix has yet conceived, and one of the most eloquent responses to the increasing omniscience of neo-conservatism in the United States, and the way it uses the rhetoric of terror for its own terrifying agenda.
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