Wild Wild Country is a remarkable and beautifully narrated documentary on Netflix, covering six episodes, each episode covering a milestone of a surreal tale across four years in Antelope, Oregon, USA.
The narrative begins in a small nondescript town of 75 odd denizens, living in Orlando USA, who one day discover that a large ranch of rocky desert land, covering thousands of hectares has been bought over, and within weeks, strange maroon clad and ‘wild’ people take possession of it.
It is the year 1981, and the people of the town witness the setting up of a large commune, by a cult of Sanyasins who are devoted to Bhagwan Rajneesh. Much to their shock and awe, within months, these strange people – uninhibited, unconventional, and tremendously energetic, are able to transform the desert into a rich valley, with lakes and dams, and community farming. The city of Rajneeshpuram develops in front of their disbelieving eyes – a lively city with its own water, power, farms, schools and hospitals and yes even an airstrip. On one hand, busloads of maroon clad happy people arrive from across the world, and on the other hand, a Learjet lands, bringing a frail, brown man with a grey beard and with hypnotic intelligent eyes into the town.
Antelope and the state of Oregon is not ready for this influx and the documentary offers conflicting perspectives from ten protagonists, and is bolstered by actual TV footage – recordings by Rajneeshis, by US TV stations etc. The ten protagonists include three Antelope denizens on one side, three powerful US government officials including the Attorney General, and four powerful devotees of the Bhagwan. There are snippets of the Bhagwan speaking as well apart from how the commune evolved.
In many ways, the tale of Wild Wild Country is extremely relevant to our current times where we see bigotry, fear, and hate around us and which is the reason it captivates me –as a process worker who has worked with healing and therapy in groups, as an OD professional and as a human being.
Rajneeshpuram was to be the modern Shangri La – a large scale experiment to integrate the strengths of the west including market capitalism and the mystic spiritualism of the east, and to unleash a new way of living. The protagonist inside the commune speak of integrating man and woman with nature, and releasing him or her from the trappings of narrow thinking and fear of the unknown.
There are aspects of the commune that bolster the belonging and dependency on the Bhagwan – but as the documentary unfolds – the people in the commune come across as wise, intelligent, and quite mature. The documentary challenges the notion of cult membership and that most cults are composed of dumb, dependent, infantile followers. The devotion to the Bhagwan is never eschewed but it also underlines the merits of a certain quality of deep faith to a man, who wishes to transform the human condition.
To their credit, the producers of this tale steer clear of taking any political or philosophical stances to the drama of a promised land that unfolds, and then self-destructs in a span of a year or so. The anecdotes of all the protagonists are interweaved – endorsing a certain complexity of themes and plots that are rich to savor for the viewer. They richly deserve the Emmy awards.
I do not wish to be spoiler, but the narrative offers the opportunity of dialoguing over the following themes:
The Guru and his own impotency: While the followers make him seem as omnipotent and as a God, the tale very poignantly speaks of the Bhagwan’s dream and his power over the commune, only to discover his own impotence and his frailties. The cinematic shots of Osho are brilliant – he is seen with a magnetic voice and great compassion as he gets to meet his personal secretary for the first time in 1970s, and then seen as exhausted, reactive, and disillusioned as he plans to leave USA. The tale explores what sheer faith and devotion may do to an intelligent thinker, and how seductive it is to manipulate and to get manipulated. The tale shows him as a complex man and does justice to him.
The Blind Loyalists: In many ways, the narrative speaks of many men and women who choose to be the blind loyalists and in competing to be more loyal than the other, become blind and counter-dependent. There are loyalists who are ready to kill for the Bhagwan and speak of their tale – of how in search for their dream of human condition, they move to the other extreme. This tale is poignantly told by four followers – each competing with the other, and yet each discovering his or her blindness over time. While they may have accused the external world of the same bigotry and violence, they painfully own up their own dark side.
The Other: The city of Antelope, and the denizens of the Orlando state bring forth their fears (of the unknown), their hate, and their clan mindset. Fear of the unknown and hunkering down to Christian beliefs, as they witness a ‘horde’ of wild people, in an endless orgy of gratification, and they become haters and aggressors. Of course the interface between the Other and the Commune is rife with a tension – bordering on projecting their respective shadows on each other.
The current angst that Donald Trump is leveraging against the immigrants who are supposed to be bringing in disease, hate, and fear is what the documentary captures. All denizens of Antelope are conservative whites. The wars with the Other offer lessons for us today – whether you support the Antelopians or the Rajneeshis.
Colonization: The tale speaks of working around colonization and of working in tandem with nature and with each other. The denizens of Antelope stand for the values of the Coloniser and the tale gets extremely interesting in exploring alternatives when it comes to negotiating with the Colonizer.
Of course, the narrative is tragic-comic as all stakeholders including the governing officials are unable to converge
Entropy in Systems: Those fond of systems thinking would find the tale extremely illustrative of how systems degenerate if the core management that ought to endorse core values and beliefs, gets to be missing or in abeyance. The container of Rajneeshpuram never gets institutionalized – it remains personalized with the Bhagwan and his followers.
The Journey / End of the Dream: the tale culminates into the Bhagwan discovering that he has created a religion to substitute all religions, and that he needs to move beyond a Cultish identification with his dream and vision – where the norms and the rules need to be re-defined and re-looked. In many ways, the tale speaks of a journey where the Bhagwan evolves after having seen defeat and the end of the dream. The tale ends on a very sad note but several protagonists from the commune speak of their hope for a better tomorrow. It is the end of a dream but the learnings are immense to lay down the foundation for the next dream.
Lastly, the tale signifies the criticality of Faith and Belonging – a universe that my colleague and teacher Ashok Malhotra endorses in his framework of EUM. The tale speaks of people who are rich, smart, successful, and yet carry a sense of deep emptiness and anomie. It speaks of many life journeys, where they surrender themselves to the Bhagwan and are able to live, albeit for a few months or years, joyously and as a collective – experiencing deep belonging and faith. The dream may wither away but the deep desire for Faith and to Love and to Belong cannot be denied.
I have taken care to not give away the plots and the shifts of the tale. Do have a look at these six episodes and write to me.