A True American Cult

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A review of Wild Wild CountryI started Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, directed by Maclain and Chapman Way, expecting a guilty-pleasure binge. Most of the cult-focused true-crime media we’re flooded with today—through movies, TV, podcasts—have a very clear and predictable narrative. They tend to follow the same formula established by Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter of decades ago, as he laid out his prosecution of the Manson family along with his absolute revulsion for and disbelief of their absurd world view. In America, the word cult starts out with a certain weight to it, and it isn’t a flattering one. We’re ready for a story of justice over evil, over manipulation, over a cruel leader squeezing his followers for all they’re worth.

Wild Wild Country, though, does something new. Instead of a demonized cult, what we see instead is something functioning, but flawed. The six-part documentary traces the establishment of the controversial guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers as they transplanted from India to Wasco County, Oregon, a sleepy, conservative town that wants nothing to do with the cult. Legal, armed, and even germ-driven battles ensue. Tensions within the Rajneeshees’ community and leadership rise. The keystone is about to drop out of the whole structure—but what is that structure supporting? This is no Helter Skelter. We don’t have the luxury of watching and feeling confident in which side we should be cheering for. And that ambiguity—that flexibility—is what makes Wild Wild Country so intensely successful.

What’s more frightening than the cult, for much of the series, is the everyday rural Americans living around their Oregon community. The bigotry stands out a mile. The disgust and self-righteousness of Bugliosi’s narrative is written all over their reaction, but with much less thought behind it. The Rajneeshees practice free love, their form of meditation looks brutal and disturbing, and their devotion to their leader appears mindless and ridiculous. But from voices within the community, that narrative isn’t allowed to stand unchallenged. The Rajneeshees interviewed for the documentary are not set up as objects of mockery or derision. If anything, it’s the townspeople who, frantic to out-vote the Rajneeshees and keep them out of local government, pitch headlong into a series of escalations that act as a pipeline for much of the violence inside and outside of the Rajneeshees’ community.

It isn’t the narrative we’re used to hearing. There is a sequence in the first half of the series, as Rajneeshpuram begins to get on its feet, in which we watch the Rajneeshees’ community literally building their town from the ground up. In another this-cult-goes-way-downhill narrative, this sequence could be framed as being disturbing. Look at these people are all cheerfully devoting themselves to free labor in the service of a man who owns upwards of a dozen Rolls Royces. But the people are self-aware and they are joyful. They are articulate and educated and happy, living in a practical, capitalist utopia that they feel they must constantly defend. We, the viewers, are happy for them. We’re rooting for them. This isn’t a familiar narrative: the strange becomes familiar, and the familiar becomes strange.

The implosion at the heart of the Rajneeshees’ religion isn’t something the narrative takes pleasure in. It isn’t a shocking failure. It’s a complicated one—and even to call it a failure would be too broad and absolute a term. There are still practicing Rajneeshees today. When we begin to look at documentaries like HBO’s Going Clear, which laid bare Scientology in a heartily frightening way, we begin to see that important work in this field can’t all be approached with Going Clear’s hammer-to-anvil force.

A documentary that allows for complexity in a story—when that narrative could easily flounce past all nuance to a digestible, shock-value story—is a good documentary. It takes you along on a journey with both the guilty and the innocent.  Ma Anand Sheela, one of the central players of the drama and certainly its most fascinating character, was ultimately charged with assault, arson, immigration fraud, and a number of other no-less-serious accusations. In the course of the documentary, it becomes increasingly clear that she did conspire to commit them. And yet she remains the most complex and compelling character of the story, not its villain. Her guilt doesn’t demolish her complexity: instead of taking the easy way out, the narrative asks us instead to try to follow along, to see where the tangled threads of stern American bigotry and fierce utopian hope can take us.

Wild Wild Country isn’t a documentary that asks for trust. It doesn’t ask for the viewer to decide absolutely on any of its many nuanced stories and characters. It is absolutely refreshing, in a world of pre-digested news narratives and absolutist statements. I encourage everyone to go wandering with this extraordinary and empathetic narrative. It’s storytelling the way I haven’t seen on screen in some time.

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About Author

Alison Lanier is a Boston-based writer and editor currently working in communications at MIT. A graduate of Wellesley College, she is part of the editorial team at Mortar Magazine and AGNI as well as at Atticus Review. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in Ms. Magazine Online, Bust, The Establishment, and elsewhere.

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