One of the keys to creating a successful cult is having a relatively reasonable entry point. If Scientologists welcomed people in off the street with detailed stories about Xenu, Teegeeack and Thetans, chances are they’d be a much less powerful entity than they are today. What Wild Wild Country shows in its opening episode is similar to the feeling you get watching the early stages of Alex Gibney’s superb Going Clear, a disconcerting impression that this actually sounds if not exactly appealing then understandably attractive to some. But like all cults, the deeper you go into the belief system, the closer you get to the endgame, the more bananas it all starts to become.
Docuseries Wild Wild Country starts with two stark juxtapositions: Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in India, dispensing wisdom to his red-clad followers from a curiously casual seating position; and the people of sleepy Antelope, Oregon – a farming community of less than thirty people. The two seem unlikely to ever meet, but meet they do and it leads to a culture clash that starts badly and gets progressively worse. Produced by the Duplass brothers and directed by Chapman and Maclain Way (who also directed the excellent Battered Bastards of Baseball), Wild Wild Country frustratingly offers no backstory on Rajneesh and little insight into his teachings or the beliefs of his followers.
He barely even speaks, spending the vast majority of the key time period in the cult’s history observing a vow of silence. While this may not explain much about how he successfully drew so many followers (rumoured to be 500,000 at one point), it does lend this small, long-bearded, googly-eyed guru an air of mystique. We know he has a fleet of Rolls Royces. We know his tenets involve emotional purging that veers from violence to unbridled jubilation. Crucially, there’s a lot of sex involved. There’s a chance that a lot of the attraction lay somewhere around that last element.
Having aggravated the Hindu community in India by speaking out against Gandhi, amongst many other transgressions, Rajneesh charged his new personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela with finding a spot in America where he could establish a new city, one just for his followers or sannyasins. Sheela, a fascinating if infuriating subject, quickly becomes the new focus as Rajneesh fades into the background. She’s a force of nature, aggressively responding to any challenge with a policy that is less ‘an eye for an eye’ and more ‘three fingers, an ear, two toes and an eye for an eye’. Sheela portrays herself as a dedicated and loyal subject, but she’s essentially a megalomaniac with an absent moral compass.
Compared to the likes of Jonestown or Waco, what happens once the cult descends on Antelope might be deemed relatively tame, but it’s no less compelling. The real terror lies in the possibility of what an unchallenged Sheela might have achieved. What’s been equally fascinating is speaking to other viewers and seeing the way allegiances are split between the cult and the townspeople, who definitely don’t do themselves many favours. Personally, I worry about anyone who can sympathise with Ma Anand Sheela.
- Watch here the trailer for Wild Wild Country: