Beyond the Spectacle of Wild Wild Country

Watching the Netflix documentary is a strange experience when you’re constantly waiting to see if a loved one will appear onscreen.

A still of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in 'Wild Wild Country'
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh before an audience in Wild Wild Country (Netflix)

When Netflix’s hit series Wild Wild Country debuted in March, friends who know about my upbringing began messaging me. They wanted to hear what I thought about the documentary, which centers on the so-called cult my mother once belonged to. Even if I had wanted to skip the show, it’d have been impossible to avoid all the articles about the group’s leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. He stared at me from news sites with the same eyes I’d seen on book covers in my mother’s apartment—after she returned from his ashram in India, and before she left our family a second time to follow him to Oregon, where much of Wild Wild Country takes place. Though my mother made her way back into my life when I was in high school and we now have a close relationship, I never wanted to think about Bhagwan again. But a couple of weeks after the documentary’s release, I braced myself and sat down to watch.

Wild Wild Country proved lush and captivating, as it highlighted the magnetism of Bhagwan (later known as Osho) and the devotion of his thousands of followers (known as sannyasins). At its heart, the six-episode series is about an upstart religious movement clashing with big government. The Rajneeshees, as they were known, moved en masse in the early 1980s to the tiny town of Antelope, Oregon, where their efforts to create a utopian city called Rajneeshpuram upset local residents. Eventually, the group’s bizarre activities attracted attention from the federal government, leading to a spate of allegations for crimes including mass poisoning and immigration fraud.

Part of what makes Wild Wild Country so astonishing is that it chronicles a spiritual movement that inspired thousands of well-educated Westerners to leave their old lives in order to dance with abandon, have sex in what were referred to as “therapy groups,” and reach enlightenment. The series also features two larger-than-life characters who ultimately destroy Rajneeshpuram: Bhagwan himself, and his personal assistant Ma Anand Sheela, who’s depicted as the mastermind behind the group’s most shocking schemes, including an assassination attempt. The tale may call to mind Waco, a docudrama miniseries about the standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidians that I recently binge-watched. But, as I learned, it’s much easier to devour a story that has nothing to do with you.

Watching Wild Wild Country, I had to pace myself; I was scanning every frame to see if I’d spot my mother. That’s because the directors, the brothers Maclain and Chapman Way, had obtained countless hours of video shot from inside the group. This footage, along with lengthy interviews with former and current prominent sannyasins, is what lends the series its authority. Still, for all its attempted comprehensiveness, Wild Wild Country fails to really consider the consequences of the Rajneeshees’ behavior for many of their families. It’s a notable omission that highlights a problem facing many true-story works about cults and cult-like groups: offering a fair, sympathetic portrayal of the followers in the thrall of a charismatic leader, without denying them of individuality or responsibility.

To their credit, the Way brothers have said they set out to make a documentary that would invite viewers to look critically at both sides of the story and decide for themselves what position to take. Accordingly, Wild Wild Country features in-depth interviews with former Antelope residents, federal prosecutors, and a handful of sannyasins. The directors’ decision to limit the number of Rajneeshee subjects is an effective one that allows the audience to go on “character journeys.” As the sannyasins speak, the sense of community and belonging they felt at Rajneeshpuram becomes clear, and I found myself empathizing at times with people I didn’t think I could care about.

But this narrative choice has downsides, too. For the Ways, the two sides seem to be, largely, the Rajneeshees and the U.S. government. Despite the wealth of footage from the commune, and because only top-level sannyasins appear on camera, there’s little chance for Wild Wild Country’s audience to learn how the thousands of regular inhabitants lived day to day. Such details could’ve helped illuminate what was at stake for all of Bhagwan’s followers, not just for those who once had a voice at Rajneeshpuram—those like Swami Prem Niren (also known as Philip J. Toelkes), who was Bhagwan’s lawyer, and Ma Shanti B (Jane Stork), who was in Sheela’s inner circle (and spent nearly three years in jail for the attempted murder of Bhagwan’s doctor). Instead, the lower-level members are treated as background figures at best.

Though the Way brothers’ decision to tell their story as objectively as possible is an admirable one, it was frustrating to see them give Sheela in particular so much screen time. The directors, who have described Sheela as “cunning” and “charming,” offer a fascinating character study of her, detailing her origins, her immense influence, and her array of crimes: She pleaded guilty to attempted murder and immigration fraud, among other charges, and has recently emerged as an intriguing antiheroine for many viewers. Wild Wild Country doesn’t exactly shy away from disturbing details, and the Ways’ interest in Sheela certainly makes sense from a storytelling perspective. But it was hard for me not to feel like the directors’ professed commitment to even-handedness led to them excluding certain kinds of ugliness.

Wild Wild Country ignores, for instance, the sterilization and vasectomies that sannyasins were strongly encouraged to undergo because, as my mother explained to me, Bhagwan felt that children hindered enlightenment. As Win McCormack, a journalist who investigated the Rajneeshee movement in Oregon in the ’80s, noted in a New Republic piece, “Of all the reprehensible aspects of the Rajneesh cult, the treatment of children at the ranch has been the most ignored or suppressed, probably because it is the most horrible and painful to contemplate … It plays no role in Wild, Wild Country.”

The documentary has come under scrutiny by many people close to the Rajneesh movement for presenting a distorted view of the community. Satya Franklin, who was a sannyasin for 13 years, wrote a piece for The Daily Beast in which she describes how she missed her children but felt compelled to stay at Rajneeshpuram. Franklin’s own daughter Patti Safian also recently recalled in a story for Glamour how difficult the years were without her mother: “The pain I felt missing my mom during that period was indescribable. For the next 13 years she would float in and out of our lives like a ghost.” In a recent Huffington Post story, a reporter who covered Rajneeshpuram in the ’80s recalled the sad story of a woman named Sandra Burrows, whose husband and two college-aged children all left to join the movement—a decision that fractured the family for decades. These accounts, to me, suggest the Ways could have included a wider range of perspectives without sacrificing moral nuance.

As a viewer, it can be tempting to trust Wild Wild Country’s intimate interviews and its hours of original footage; but these cannot offer anything close to the whole story. There’s no footage, for example, of what it felt like not to see my mother for so long when she was in India, or how I wished for her to come back through all of second grade. Deliberately or otherwise, Wild Wild Country reinforces the idea of sannyasins as people with no cares in the world: They’re shown as beautiful and happy with bright skin, shining eyes, and peaceful smiles. They look the way my mother did when she returned from India, her face glowing, her billowy clothing in all the colors of the sunrise. It was disconcerting to have the person I wanted finally back but so different from who I remembered. When she hugged me for the first time in almost a year, I felt the necklace of black beads she wore with Bhagwan’s photo on it between us. She was both my mother and not my mother.

Perhaps because of my story, I’m especially skeptical of the idea that walking a line of nonjudgment in storytelling is a virtue in and of itself—especially in a case like Wild Wild Country, when there’s no shortage of documentation and subjects who had experienced the movement firsthand.

After watching Wild Wild Country, I reflected on Waco and wondered if those who lost loved ones at the Branch Davidian compound feel that the group’s leader, David Koresh, wasn’t treated harshly enough. Or if those who had managed to escape before the 1993 siege, in which around 80 Branch Davidians were killed, believe their community was portrayed accurately. I wondered how they felt when they first heard there would be a new miniseries dramatizing their experience; after all, Waco is just the latest in a long string of works that have tried to tell the story of the infamous sect.

As for me, I never did spot my mother among all the sannyasins in Wild Wild Country. Thanks in part to its bingeability, the documentary will likely become the most popular and accessible account of a movement that swept up so many believers. Given that, it’s hard not to wish that the series had tried to capture many more people’s stories, and that it had emphasized moral complexity over moral ambiguity. Maybe, then, not only would viewers be treated to an unbelievable spectacle, but they’d also better understand the emotional toll that’s inseparable from it.