Wild Wild Country **** / *****
Directed by: Maclain Way & Chapman Way.
The film has a traditional documentary feel – with a host of archival footage and news reports from the time (the early to mid-1980s), and modern interviews with many of the participants. From the Rajneeshees point of view, this new area was paradise. It was a large, rocky plot of land that no one was using – they exerted great effort and spent a lot of resources turning it in a community full of homes, restaurants, a massive hall used for worship and everything else you could imagine. The Bhagwan was extremely wealthy – he owned many Rolls Royce’s for example. Most of the money likely came from his followers – mostly white Americans or Europeans, some with a lot of money. They all came willingly, and they all wore red. This was either a glorious new religious movement or a cult depending on the way you looked at it.
Problems arise though when the Rajneeshees start angering the locals in the nearest town – Antelope, which doesn’t even have 100 people, and most of them are older, retirees. They, and other, Oregonians, don’t like the way the Rajneeshees are using the land – and want to force them out. The Rajneeshees respond by getting involved in local politics. What follows is absolutely crazy – and will eventually include mass poisoning, arson, assassination plots and massive American government bureaucracy exerting its will on the Rajneeshees.
Throughout it all, the Way brothers never really express their opinion on things – never really lead the audience in what to think. Certainly, you can understand the point-of-view of the Oregonians, who thought they were living in a small, sleepy town – only to be invaded by a loud, red clad horde, who believed in (and practiced) free love, and eventually essentially took over their town – buying everything they could, including the local diner (who local recalls how they went from frying bacon on the grill to bananas – and never went back). But it’s hard to argue with the Rajneeshees either that a lot of it was motivated by bigotry, and they were just trying to practice their religion – which they have every right to do. The most fascinating character in the whole series is undeniably Ma Anand Sheela, the Bhagwan’s personal secretary, who pretty much ran the commune for years, as the Bhagwan remained silent. She reveled in all the media attention she received – and she kept on receiving it because she gave fiery, often profane interviews. She is a lot calmed in the modern interviews with her now, but you still feel that same passion from her. She is also the catalyst for much of what happens. One wonders what would have happened without her – would the Rajneeshees been run out sooner, or would eventually they have been allowed to go about their lives?
The film runs in six parts, each lasting just over an hour – and it really does earn that runtime (in fact, you could argue it could just a little bit longer – it does feel like some of what happens is rushed). The Way brothers know what they’re doing here – the pacing never flags, which is accomplishment when dealing with some stuffy government bureaucrats explaining in detail what they were doing, and each part ends with perhaps a little too explosive of a cliffhanger to make sure you’ll keep watching – and it works (I may well have watched all six in a row had I not started part one at 11pm one night). Most retellings of this story, understandably, concentrate on some of the more explosive details – the mass salmonella poisoning for example – but by taking so much time, Wild Wild Country puts everything in context, and tells an wildly entertaining, strange story – and really is one of the best docs you will see this year.