‘Wild Wild Country’ Directors Discuss How Cultures Collide
Netflix’s new docu-series, “Wild Wild Country” takes a journey into a controversial chapter in recent American history. It chronicles the rise and fall of a utopian dream in central Oregon in the 80s, during which followers of a new age spiritual movement attempted to establish their own city, eventually clashing with ultra-conservative locals. The sect’s members were known as the Rajneeeshees, due to their devotion to Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, now lovingly called “Osho” by devotees and confidants.
The six-part series opens in 1960s and 70s, as a generation disenchanted with Vietnam, conservatism and government sought escape through new age mysticism. Rajneesh’s brand of spiritual psychology and live free attitude attracts thousands of converts. But when the movement is persecuted in India he instructs his secretary, the militantly devoted Ma Anand Sheela, to find a base of operations in the United States. She finds a prime spot near Antelope, Oregon. By 1981 the group is fully settled and building a self-sustaining commune by the name of Rajneeshpuram. But soon the local, small and traditional community push back, eventually taking serious measures to kick out the Rajneeshees. The situation culminates in games of cutthroat politics, violence (a Rajneesheen hotel is bombed) and even bio-terrorism.
Directed by Chapman Way and Maclain Way, the series is a visceral chronicle of a clash of cultures and ideologies. Edited with the haunting tone of an Errol Morris film, “Wild Wild Country” features fascinating interviews with key players, including Sheela, who vividly recalled the bizarre, and indeed wild, chapter in Oregon history. The Way brothers recently sat down with Entertainment Voice to discuss the making and meaning of “Wild Wild Country.”
“We were basically given access to over 300 hours of archived footage that had never been seen or transferred on the story,” said Chapman. “Growing up in Los Angeles in the late 80s and 90s this was a story Mac and I had never heard of. When we learned of this incredible story about this group who built this $100 million utopian city, took over the small town of Antelope, then armed themselves with assault rifles we thought not only was it strange we had never heard about this story, but most people we talked to out of Oregon barely remembered it or had never heard about it either.”
The tale of the Rajneeshees in Oregon has a striking relevance to modern-day conflicts, whether it be the clash of new ideas and conservative rigidity or the right to practice out of the mainstream ideas in peace. For the Way brothers the relevance is definitely there. “The story takes place in 1981 in eastern Oregon which is a very conservative Christian community out there,” explains Chapman. “All of a sudden a group of foreigners from a different country and a different belief system move in next door. Our series starts to peel apart the fear of the other… and how our initial prejudices and biases that we feel towards groups that are different from us can play into our lives. I think it’s an interesting story that looks at what happens when two totally different sides, cultures and communities, absolutely refuse to communicate with each other and dehumanize each other.”
“Some of the good, awesome feedback that we’ve gotten so far is this kind of idea that it’s not so easy to figure out who’s on the right side, and that both sides can be unreliable,” said Maclain. In the series both groups in the conflict show their legitimate grievances and also their flaws. The Antelope locals are immediately startled by their new neighbor’s Eastern-tinged belief system. When footage leaks of the Rajneeshees engaged in meditation practices which include stripping naked, tempers truly flare. Sheela even forms paramilitary groups for armed protection following the bombing of a hotel owned by the group. “We were interested in capturing these vastly different perceptions of the event. It’s these two sides that get entrenched in this cultural war. Maybe it’s up to the viewer to draw the line between what’s the difference between a cult and a religion, and should it be ok that this environmental land use group is maybe infringing on the freedom of a religious minority.”
The cast of characters in this story range from the down to earth to the truly radical and mystical. Key figures include Sheela herself, who still speaks of Osho with reverence and other players such as the son of Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, who attempted to use political power to kick out the group (only to have them take over the local government themselves). “It was interesting that both sides were reluctant at first to revisit this part of their lives,” revealed Chapman. “From the Antelope perspective they feel like we’re always characterized as these one-dimension bigots and on the other sides they’re always characterized as this crazy religious sex cult… it was an interesting journey for us just as humans. I consider myself an independent person, I’m not a very spiritual or religious person… and as we got to know these characters you saw, that these are not individuals who were brainwashed, they were consenting adults who joined this movement. These people should be allowed to believe in what they believe in. Someone like myself (who is a bit more liberal) can be dismissive of the residents of Antelope as just Trump supporters or completely one-dimensional, but it was interesting to get their perspective. It was like ‘this group came in and completely wiped out our culture,’ it’s almost like gentrification, everyone can identify with that.”
As they dug deeper into this saga, it quickly dawned on the Way brothers that this story could not be properly told in a mere 90-minute format. They decided to expand the idea and devoted years to research and shooting. “It was a four year process from when we first had the idea to when we first screened it at Sundance,” said Chapman. “It took us about a year just to do the research, read the books, read the essays, break down the footage. The second process was the production process. We traveled all over the world to different countries, to Europe to interview Sheela. We spent multiple days interviewing all of characters, between three to five days. Then it took a year and a half to do all the editing and post-production.”
Much of the footage in “Wild Wild Country” is startling in its intimacy. “Our core source of archival footage came from an institution called the Oregon Historical Society,” said Mclain. “They had a local news station in Portland who had donated about 500 pneumatic tapes to the society. Pneumatic was kind of a predecessor to VHS. Luckily the stations knew the Rajneeshees were going to be, and already were at the time, such an important historical, significant event that they never taped over any of their Rajneeshee tapes.” In one startling shot, Osho walks backstage after appearing to his followers, and two Rajneeshee appear on guard, armed with automatic weapons. “What makes this series really rare is that we didn’t just have the news footage that played on the nightly news, we had the raw tapes… that’s such a striking shot when you see this peaceful community kind of arm up. It’s a shaky camera and it’s hand-held and it puts you right in the moment.”
Having now finished such an epic chronicle, the brothers are planning their next move. Inspired by the freedom of long-format filmmaking, they feel emboldened to keep going. “We’re definitely interested in documentary series, we have a couple of ideas, and one in particular, but we can’t talk about it yet because we don’t have all of our distributors onboard. Hopefully soon we’ll start talking about it.”
“Wild Wild Country” premieres March 16 on Netflix.