Wild Wild Country is the fascinating documentary of a cult that denies it’s a cult, following a religion that denies it’s a religion, and which moves from India to rural Oregon in the early 1980s to build its own Utopian city with a seemingly endless supply of money.

The group follows the elderly spiritual guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as the Bhagwan, or Rajneesh or Osho. He practices an unusual form of meditation, encourages the rejection of established religion and promotes open sexuality among his followers, known as sannyasins. His hobbies include being enlightened and collecting Rolls Royces.

4 stars

Early on, the details are a bit vague. Why, exactly, the group left India, and how it began buying land and building its city in Oregon with millions of dollars are glossed over. The Bhagwan appoints Ma Anand Sheela as his primary secretary and makes her responsible for building this oasis in America. She proves to be an incredibly capable leader, and one of the most interesting aspects of the story is the dynamic between Sheela and her guru. She is committed to bringing the vision in his teachings to life and isn’t afraid to fight with small-town locals, state officials or, eventually, the FBI to do it.

Wild Wild Country is the tale of how, over time, peace can be perverted by power. The theme of freedom-seeking revolutionaries turning into power hungry tyrants has been repeated many times in history, but perhaps never as simply illustrated as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm – all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.

There are many layers of hypocrisy uncovered in the documentary’s six episodes. There is the divide between the cult’s leadership and its followers, but there is also the reaction of small town Americans who suddenly find themselves in the minority. Their fervent belief in democracy and the American way of life, complete with cowboy boots and Stetsons, is not easily reconciled with the reality that thousands of people clad in purple robes have suddenly moved in and taken over your town council in democratic elections.

Without giving anything away, there is eventually a split in the leadership and the many bizarre allegations then surface, leading to a far-reaching federal investigation. These events happened in the early 80s and were so relevant at the time Johnny Carson is shown discussing it (and singing parody songs about it) on The Tonight Show. Ma Anand Sheela appeared on Donahue and seemingly every other talk show of the day. I was surprised that despite all this exposure, I had never heard of this group or any of the events in the documentary, which probably made for a better viewing experience.

Wild Wild Country is well constructed, using vast amounts of archival footage punctuated with modern interviews with all the principal players. The older footage is bright and colourful. The modern interviews use minimal lighting in darkened rooms. The effect conveys a loss of vitality, as if all the whimsy of their youth were spent but fondly remembered.

As is the current trend on Netflix, this is not a documentary, it’s a documentary series in six parts spanning close to seven hours. Occasionally, the subject matter warrants the longer form, such as with Netflix’s Making a Murderer, ESPN’s OJ: Made in America or HBO’s The Jinx. While it’s very good, Wild Wild Country could be half as long with nothing lost from the story. But it has the one quality that all great Netflix series share. Each episode hooks you in and teases the next so effectively, if you press play, you’ll probably binge the whole thing.

Title Wild Wild Country
Directors Chapman Way and Maclain Way
Runtime 6 episodes, each 64-71 minutes
Starring Ma Anand Sheela, Osho, Philip Toelkes
Production Duplass Brothers Productions