In the 1980s, when guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh decided to build a utopian city in the Oregon desert, a conflict with ranchers from nearby Antelope ensued. As Wild Wild Country co-directors Chapman Way and Maclain Way describe it, this conflict involved “cult leaders, mass poisonings, assassination attempts, bombings, and an aborted utopian paradise.
Through their documentary, the Way brothers take viewers back to this strange moment in American cultural history.
The directors recount meeting an archivist at the Oregon Historical Society while working on another documentary: “He told us he had over 250 hours of never-before-seen footage that chronicled the entire story of the Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who built a massive commune-city in the middle of Oregon. We hadn’t ever heard of this story and we thought, could this all have really happened?
“We’re attracted to telling forgotten stories, and when we began doing our own research, we were astonished to find out that everything the archivist had told us was true. This had all really happened and more.
“The Rajneesh saga rocked the entire state of Oregon in the early 1980s, and also represented one of the largest incursions of a new minority religious movement in our country in decades, and yet no one seemed to remember it.
“We were not really interested in the true crime, whodunit and sensational aspects of the narrative, though those elements are certainly inherent in this story. We wanted to explore how this guru and his group challenged our sacred American institutions. Wild Wild Country is about a clash of cultures between the disciples of Rajneeshpuram and the citizens of Antelope, Oregon, and how both sides claimed to be on the right side of the Constitution—using it as both a shield and a weapon for their own survival.
“By reexamining this bygone story, we’d like viewers to experience all of the chaotic and visceral elements that comprise the entire Rajneesh era in Oregon,” say the directors.
“The Antelope conflict is just a very micro view of a particular American paranoia regarding religious and cultural difference in the Reagan/post-Jonestown early ’80s,” writes Daniel Fienberg. “The story gets bigger and bigger as the expanding Rajneeshee city attracts the attention of state and national officials, and we’re forced to ask ourselves questions about the difference between cult and religion, the protections of the Bill of Rights, the threat of the unfamiliar, selective government-sponsored prosecution and persecution, but also if we have a threshold for how much minor corruption and law-breaking might justify a crackdown and when actions are enough to constitute what several talking heads call ‘evil.'” To read the full article, click here.
“This story is something that some people have either never heard of before or only know little bits and pieces of,” executive producer Mark Duplass adds. “Wild Wild Country was an opportunity to tell it for the first time in a major way. The Ways had the idea to cut past the sensationalism of cults and the scandals to something more complex about ideals, hopes, dreams gone wrong.
“Historical documentaries can often be really boring. But we had access to hundreds of hours of incredible footage, shot by a professional news cameraman on these very expensive (for the time) pneumatic tapes. They were supposed to have been taped over, but were luckily saved. This footage allowed us to place viewers directly inside the compound.
“When we tell stories of cults, we tend to demonize them. But these people were smart, charismatic. They had great intentions. And that’s what’s special about what the Ways have done here—they’ve made a series in which all sides get a fair shake.”