Interview by Bears Fonte
In the middle of nowhere Oregon, a religious movement rolled in with Rolls Royces and attempted to take over the small town of Antelope. Led by spiritual teacher Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his publicity-hungry secretary Ma Anand Sheela, the neo-sannyasins purchased 64,000+ acres and turned an abandoned ranch into a thriving city of 7,000, complete with typical urban infrastructure such as a fire department, police, restaurants, malls, townhouses, a 4,200-foot (1,300 m) airstrip, a public transport system using buses, a sewage reclamation plant and a reservoir.
What began as a search for religious freedom turned quickly into a battle of church vs. state as local groups, terrified by the utopian settlement’s dress, secrecy and dedication to free love, attempted to have the followers removed. Although less than 40 years ago, the legal battle for Rajneeshpuram is all but forgotten despite a near unbelievable legacy that includes busing in homeless to try to sway elections, mass druggings, bombings, wiretapping and bio-terrorism.
This true history, which sounds completely implausible to those of us who did not live through it, is the subject of Directors Chapman Way and Maclain Way’s new NETFLIX six-part documentary WILD WILD COUNTRY. Debuting on the streaming platform tomorrow, March 16th, the docuseries looks at the religious and political conflict from all sides, including the first ever extensive interviews with media manipulator and terrorist Sheela about her time in Oregon, as well as members of the 1000 Friends of Oregon the (honestly) bigoted group of locals who did their best to restrict free speech and religions.
Does it sound hard to pick a side in this one? That is the strength of the story-telling of Chapman and Maclain’s series, which doesn’t spoonfeed the audience a view but instead just throws them in the middle and dares their incredulity. I had a chance to sit down with the directors at Sundance where the series premiered and discuss their docu-opus.
Chapman: We were kind of the same thing. I was born in the 80’s and Mac was born in 1990, and we had never heard of this story either. We were working with a film archivist up in Oregon who about four years ago and he told us he had over 300 hours of archived footage that had never been transferred or really seen on the story of this Indian guru who built this utopia in Eastern Oregon and all hell broke loose. As soon as we started to see the footage, we were blown away by the scope and magnitude of the story. It seems like a lot of people are familiar with Jonestown, and Waco, and these big, epic American events. But the story for Rashnespuram, for whatever reason, over the years has been relegated to the dust bins of history.
MacClean: When we first started getting the footage back, and then started reaching out to people we would be interested in interviewing, that’s when it really started evolving into us wanting to do it in episodic format. Every episode escalates in tension and hopefully you want to keep on watching. As we were talking to our interviewees, we realized this was probably the most important thing that happened to them in their life.
Chapman: As soon as we saw just how much archived footage there was on this story, and just how much there was going to be to tell this story, we knew right away that we wanted to do it in a longer format. There were some other places that were interested in doing it as a feature, but Netflix really signed on to the episodic format and was really excited about it and ended up being a perfect home for it.
Maclain: Part of the fun in this series is you, as the viewer, are trying to figure out what side – is there a right side here? Is there a side that is in the wrong here? Is Antelope on the side of justice or not? Who’s telling me the truth? Picking up on each person’s agenda, or their perception of the events that happened. In a feature, I think it’s a lot more difficult to try and do that because you don’t have the large canvas that an episodic theme will give you.
BEARS: Yeah, absolutely. For me, the failing of most documentaries is that they focus on one side and that’s the only perspective you get. But you got Sheela to talk and she seemed really anxious to tell her story. So tell me about how you approached them and why you think they agreed.
Chapman: So, as soon as we got the archive footage back, Mac and I were doing research. Just some initial Googling. The first article that came up was like, “The Rajneeshees, the terrorist/sex cult.” We were like, “wow, that’s a really heavy-hitting term to describe this group.” Obviously as we started approaching these disciples, these ex-disciples, and some of our main characters like Sheela, I think when we came to them with a platform that said we’re not going to judge you. We just want to hear from your perspective – what happened here? Walk us through how this happened. I think once they realized that we weren’t judging them for the events that happened at the end of the story, but we wanted to capture the scope of their entire movement and their entire journey. I think that honestly this was something that a lot of them felt like they never really gotten a chance to talk about. It’s something that’s been on their minds for the last 30 years. When we met with them, you became instantly aware of how viscerally real all these emotions were for them, even 35 years later. How much stake they feel they still have in the story and let the audience know what their intentions were and where things went wrong. Both sides were really nervous to talk to us. Even the people in Antelope were really nervous they were going to be portrayed as these backwoods bigots who didn’t accept their neighbors. When we started talking to them too, we found that they had real genuine concerns about this movement moving in next door.
Maclain: As far as Sheela was concerned, she was pretty down to talk about this once we built a relationship with her. There wasn’t anything she said she didn’t really want to talk about. She certainly has her perception of what happened, her perception of the events that occurred in Rajneeshpuram. I think we know what she thinks happened in a fairly and accurately in the documentary. Obviously, there are a lot of people who won’t agree with her take on the events. But as far as that, she was incredibly – she’s actually a very warm, welcoming person. It was interesting: when we turned the camera on and started diving into the story with her, it was almost like a little bit of the old Sheila was coming back. It was great for us as documentary filmmakers because she still has stakes in the story.
Chapman: She’s definitely a natural performer and she’s also really intelligent. She’s really thoughtful. She was actually our only interviewee – we’ll usually send some prep questions to prep people for the interviews – and she was the only person to say, “don’t send me anything, sit down in the chair, ask away, and we’ll do this.” We spent five full days interviewing her in Switzerland, and with about five hours a day of interviews, we ended up with about 20 hours of interviews with her. She was an open book. We asked our questions and she answered. I think she’s a really interesting character where you never really quite know if she’s spinning things a certain way.
BEARS: So what do you think makes this group different from Waco or Jonestown?
Maclain: There was a belief system, an actual religious belief system was not anything very extreme or bizarre by today’s standards. It was a group that believed in meditation and free love and sustainable living. In the early 80’s, people saw these followers dressed head-to-toe in red and it freaked everyone out. But really there was a lot of highly successful, intelligent people who got burned out on life and wanted to create their own city, create their own utopia. In some of these other cults, you’re sitting there, asking yourself, “how could anyone believe in this?” But the belief system of Rajneesh the guru – he had a PhD in philosophy. He was a really intelligent, interesting person. I think the challenge in watching this is you’re not really asking yourself why people joined this, you understand why they joined it and what they were looking for and what they were hoping to achieve. They had these incredible, noble intentions of building this sustainable community from scratch where they could live in peace and happiness.
Chapman: I think what actually makes this different is also not too many people remember. In Oregon, people remember the Rajneeshees, but outside of Oregon, it is a very little remembered story. It’s almost forgotten. I think as documentary filmmakers, we were given a blank slate in terms of with our audience. Our audience has a blank slate on these events. That presents its own challenges but also presents its own interesting opportunity to how you as a filmmaker get to craft the story. How you get to frame the story and the events.
Maclain: When the guru was deported from America in 1985, he went back to India and then he changed his name to Osho and the organization did a complete rebranding of the whole movement. They white-washed this Oregon chapter from all his biographies. Even today Osho books are very popular. They’re sold in Barnes and Nobles all around the country and the world. People read Osho books everywhere. But most people who read Osho and follow Osho don’t even know that this chapter existed in his biography. I think that’s because the group has been embarrassed and ashamed of how everything unfolded.
Chapman Way and Maclain Way’s last documentary THE BATTERED BASTARDS OF BASEBALL premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, before being purchased by NETFLIX. WILD WILD COUNTRY, executive produced by Mark and Jay Duplass premiers on the streaming platform tomorrow.