Growing up, the Rajneeshees seemed almost like legend. Until recently they weren’t widely known, despite the fact that when the cult poisoned ten restaurants in 1984, it resulted in over 750 people getting sick and 45 getting hospitalized. And though the fact that Oregon’s high desert was the site of America’s largest biological weapons attack isn’t weird enough, the captured town of Antelope was for a while “Rejneeshpuram,” and the Rajneeshees drugged the thousands of homeless people they recruited to it. This is what my friends and I heard, though for the longest time when our parents talked about the Rajneeshees we gave them the skeptical eye.
One of my friends in college had “Rajneeshee” as his Facebook religion, which, when people asked about, would always lead to a pretty funny response: “Oh, the Rajneeshee cult, you don’t know about them?” But now instead of hearing what could be a weird tall tale, we have “Wild Wild Country,” and I simply can’t recommend the documentary enough. So what is it about, without giving too much away? Well the documentary begins by outlining where the cult came from. The first episode explains why Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had to leave Indian, why Oregon was chosen as the location for his new commune, and how he attracted his followers.
The second episode gets into the leadership of the cult. You get to meet some truly, truly unique characters such as Ma Anand Sheela, the second-in-command, and Philip Toelkes, the cult’s main lawyer. Toelkes also goes by “Swami Prem Niren,” and actually most people in the cult have two names. Sheela is from India, and came over with the Bhagwan, while Toelkes was a powerful Los Angeles lawyer who the cult attracted. Toelkes the first of many Westerners connected to the cult that you meet, and though most in that boat are American, there’s a few characters from the UK and Australia as well.
The middle episodes focus on the townspeople of Antelope. The city had a population of around 50 before the cult, although it also supported more people in the form of farmers and ranchers in the area. You see interviews with past mayors, city council people, and regular folks who were run out by the cult in various, insidious ways. At the same time, as the series approaches its final sixth episode, there is footage showing how the cult was training with weapons, how they increased plans to slowly vote out everyone in Wasco County—and perhaps later everyone in Oregon—and how see how they plotted numerous assassinations and mass surveillance activities.
The cult isn’t around in Oregon anymore. You know that from the beginning of the documentary though—this is a documentary about how things happened, not that they happened. And all of that is fine, but perhaps it isn’t what makes this piece of cinematic journalism so fantastic. The “secret sauce” here is something I’ve never seen in a documentary before; the Rajneeshees filmed EVERYTHING, and seemingly all living members and ex-members of the cult were willing to give contemporary interviews. I’ve never seen a documentary that had so much footage from thirty-years ago and in the present, and it flips between the two so well.
–Jeff and Leah