Utopia rocked small-town US

Persecution or dangerous? Rajneesh's followers sought enlightenment but were seen as a cult and a threat by their neighbours. (Wild Wild Country/ Maclain and Chapman Way/ Netflix)

Persecution or dangerous? Rajneesh's followers sought enlightenment but were seen as a cult and a threat by their neighbours. (Wild Wild Country/ Maclain and Chapman Way/ Netflix)

Osho, also known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, only lived for 58 years. In that time, however, he and his thousands of devotees cut to the heart of the United States’s whiteness and cemented a global spiritual movement that thrives to this day.

The six-episode documentary Wild Wild Country, available on Netflix, deals mostly with the Rajneeshees’ (also known as sannyasins) exodus from Pune, India, to Oregon, US, in the early 1980s and the conflict that erupts as they rapidly develop a city on a rugged, mountainous ranch near the town of Antelope.

It is made by brothers Maclain and Chapman Way, makers of a previous Oregon-set film The Battered Bastards of Baseball.

The sannyasins, constituting the cream of Western society in the form of its intellectuals and educated classes, put their all into the construction of Rajneeshpuram, their city in the middle of nowhere.

Within months, by building dams and rehabilitating the land through their early efforts at organic farming, the water table of the areas around Wasco County rose significantly, boosting the vitality of the surrounding ecosystem.

The Rajneeshees also developed a self-contained attitude to commerce and banking, sustaining their own businesses with a co-operative ethos. They wore markers of difference — a hippie-like appearance, malas as well as red and indigo uniforms. In a one-horse town of redneck, ultra-conservative retirees, they stuck out, heightening rumours about what went on behind the rugged ridges that constitute the new city of Rajneeshpuram.

An early documentary covered in Wild Wild Country, paints mostly one-dimensional, easily sensationalised scenes of intense, moshpitlike therapy sessions (where rough physical contact was encouraged in controlled settings) and allusions to orgies.

When this earlier roughshod documentary hit the streets, the negative perceptions about the new neighbours were sealed, branding them a neosatanic, sex-crazed cult who spend their time supplicating themselves in front of their mostly silent guru and rolling around in semen.

As a result, the outraged townspeople tried to squeeze the runaway success of the commune, now probably numbering in the upper hundreds, with more streaming in to join the utopia.

City officials nailed the newbies for flouting the state’s strict land-use laws. This led to a legal and legislative tussle, but the sannyasins made a successful bid to run the city of Antelope after failed attempts to disincorporate it.

They also made an audacious bid to control Wasco County with an ill-advised project that included bussing in the homeless in an attempt to exploit a loophole in Oregon state law that gave new residents the right to vote.

Through all these shenanigans, tensions reached a fever-pitch, leading to the arming of the sannyasins after their hotel in Portland was bombed. The us-versus-them mentality hardened, delineated with glee and shock value in the media by Rajneesh’s brilliant and provocative secretary (more lieutenant, actually), Ma Anand Sheela.

The vast layers in this story (Rajneesh’s penchant for the finer things in life and his ensnarement by a monied Hollywood faction, for instance) are well suited to the serialised format of this documentary.

As much a star as her commander Rajneesh — who is little seen in the movie except mostly in his Rolls Royce drive-bys (his way of communicating with his followers after he took a vow of silence) — Sheela is, in many ways, the vehicle that keeps the sannyasin’s account moving. In reality, she is also the movement’s engine.

She learns to goad and shock the public in her media appearances, in much the same way as Malcolm X fulfilled this role in the Nation of Islam before he was ousted. Desperate and cornered as her county election scheme threatens to backfire, Sheela and her inner circle of women at the top of the sannyasin organisational food chain turn from a steely, jacked-up core into a nefarious council of villains.

But herein lies the beauty of this film. It turns these easily dichotomous moral questions into an amalgam that is, at the end of it, a micro historical account of American history and, indeed, global conquest.

Prior to watching this film, I had no idea of the existence of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his devotees, who continue to number in the thousands. Their confrontation with the core of the American “pilgrim” mentality lasted only four years (1981 to 1985). The sheer vastness of filmmakers Chapman and Maclain Way’s vision, not to mention the mountains of archival footage (sourced from the Oregon Historical Society and, I suspect, from willing sannyasins), helps in pointing out the complex and macro importance of that single encounter in American history.

It points to further questions about the make-up of our societies. What lies at the heart of nationalistic projects, especially those as grand as the US? Are they, fundamentally, propped up by fragile facades of supposed ideological superiority?

What happens when these are unravelled by seemingly insignificant opponents who, by their sheer ingenuity, could easily replicate and simultaneously deconstruct these ideologies, thereby constituting a “fatal” threat? How real is the supposed separation of church and state?

As an aesthetic product, Wild Wild Country is helped along by a number of factors, prime among them the expert pacing of the film. This is intensified in the opening stages of the film. The Way brothers do an great job in tracing their own curiosity and transmitting that to their viewers.

Footage is expertly woven into a labyrinthine tale that is precisely edited to maintain suspense and threading without gratuitous emotional manipulation. The soundtrack has enough psychedelic and folksy strains to portray the movement as undergirded by a spirit of counterculturalism steeped but not exclusively grounded in the hippy movement.

But where the filmmakers do fail is in telling us just who the man who later became Osho was, beyond the narrow scope of the early 1980s. Rajneesh’s early mastery of hypnosis, his later mastery of psychology and philosophy (he taught these at professorial level in India) and his pre-US clashes with the Indian government are glossed over, as is his return to India and the controversies surrounding his death.

The brothers are also seemingly reluctant to devote a segment of their documentary to a deeper appraisal of Rajneesh’s spiritual philosophy, at least in its developmental stages and in the context of his homeland of India. This would lead to a deeper understanding of how Rajneesh was consistently able to attract a layer of intellectuals and the weather, first into his ashram in Pune and then his ability to replicate this on foreign soil.

Wild Wild Country is a near-perfect and thought-provoking documentary about the most influential man I had never heard of, his army of efficient and dedicated supporters, and a country that saw its death reflected in his luminous eyes.

Wild Wild Country is available on Netflix

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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