Harp writes on the new docuseries: “For Wild Wild Country viewers to conflate what became a treacherous power struggle of ‘us versus them’ with the ethos and character of the entire community, is a distortion of truth.”
“I believe in everything; nothing is sacred. I believe in nothing; everything is sacred.” Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. And if it gets messy, eat it over the kitchen sink.
The Netflix Original series Wild Wild Country has all the ingredients of a rip-roaring potboiler from the get go. Sex and violence in spades, or at least imagined and plotted. Hiss worthy villains. Morally compromised heroes. A cast of thousands. Church vs. State. White hats, black hats, and ubiquitous red hats worn by devotees of controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in 1981 as they descended upon remote Central Oregon with visions of creating a utopian commune, transforming their newly purchased 64,000 acre Big Muddy Ranch into Rancho Rajneesh.
From stage far right enter 1000 Friends of Oregon, a conservative land use watchdog organization bankrolled at that time by the co-founder of Nike, Inc., Bill Bowerman, the father of a rancher whose property was across the John Day river from Rancho Rajneesh. This group set in motion what became an epic battle that culminated in the collapse of a shining example of one of their own pet advocacies, that of vibrant, sustainable communities. But enough about land use. Sex! Rolls Royces! Nudity! Guns! Beautiful people! Wild country! Wild Wild Country! Those are the hooks that reel in an audience.
“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them”, was the tagline concluding each episode of the iconic TV series The Naked City in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The same could be said about Wild Wild Country. The latest entry in the true crime genre, it is stupefying with its extensive documentation, and an amazing window into a particular chapter of a deep and enduring tome which has been hiding in plain sight for over 3 decades. I applaud the filmmakers, with reservations.
It is essential to note this chapter focuses on the four and a half year survival saga of the Oregon commune in their myriad battles with various entities of the establishment. The leader of the commune was Ma Anand Sheela, Bhagwan’s Executive Secretary, prominently featured before, during, and after her time in prison.
As alert viewers will surmise, there are also a multitude of backstories – more back stories than can even be hinted at in a mere six and a half hours. The most prominent of the untold backstories are those of Bhagwan himself, also known as Osho, and the undeniable impact he had on hundreds of thousands of people. That vital insight is missing; alas, the filmmakers’ access to a historical archive of over three hundred hours of footage, did not include an even more vast archive of him speaking publicly. This oversight is incompatible with any scrupulous inquiry into the crux of the matter.
At its peak, the commune population consisted of approximately 5000 educated and skilled residents who worked 7 days a week as part of a grand undertaking in intentional, sustainable, cooperative and harmonious living. On 125 square miles of undeveloped land in the outback of Oregon, we undertook the herculean tasks of building our own pioneer city. I say we because I was there, one of a small video crew whose job was documenting our daily lives.
Unacknowledged, our own footage is used extensively in Wild Wild Country, whose makers were never there, and never experienced the sublime fulfillment of witnessing and participating in our remarkable enterprise. We worked hard, living and breathing the rewarding results of our efforts. It was idyllic. We were unplugged; we didn’t have TV, smart phones, internet, or newspaper subscriptions. We lived in a delightful bubble of our own making. We were free-spirited dropouts having the time of our lives.
Like citizens everywhere, the large majority of residents were uninvolved with the political turmoil which eventually deranged and destroyed our prodigiously unique community. To be clear, we were in no way, shape, or form the homicidal, terrorist, sex-crazed cult we are smeared as being. We were actually anything but. It was the commune leadership who drank the kool-aid and went off the rails. For Wild Wild Country viewers to conflate what became a treacherous power struggle of “us versus them” with the ethos and character of the entire community, is a distortion of truth, and plays into the hands of predatory media manipulation that so defines our era and shapes our minds. We believe the propaganda we’re told at the exclusion of all else. To be fair, we often believed the propaganda we too were being told. Lesson learned.
For example, viewers who were jarred by the scenes of graphic footage snipped from the controversial film Ashram, took the bait, much like the frightened citizens of Antelope, Oregon did.
Context matters. In the 1970’s the Rajneesh ashram in Poona, India was a mecca of the Human Potential Movement attracting thousands of people worldwide who were interested in living a self-examined life. Expanding on the model of the confrontational 1960’s Synanon Game, other radical techniques emerged in the 70’s including the Esalen Encounter Group and Primal Scream Therapy. Established therapists flocked to Poona, as did individuals seeking deeper meaning. The therapy groups were existential and experimental. Some expressions of physicality were permitted in the encounter group as a means of releasing repressed anger. It was certainly radical but it was not fist-fighting or blood-letting. And soon after claims of a broken bone surfaced, aggressive physicality was no longer allowed.
The naked group filmed in the Ashram documentary was facilitated yet there were spurious claims that hidden cameras were used to film unwitting participants. Anyone who knows anything about film production knows that cameras of that era could not be in a room without the full awareness of the participants, all of whom were in actuality cherry-picked volunteers. The wide majority of Poona group participants never came close to experiencing anything like the scenes depicted, yet the scenes became a defining and demonizing benchmark.
Meanwhile, under an expansive therapy umbrella, there were many other groups and well established practices which were not mentioned – Art, Gestalt, Rolfing, Movement, Self-Inquiry, Breath Awareness, Bio-Energetics, De-hypnosis, and the list goes on. Yet as we all reflexively know by now, gestalt therapy doesn’t sell tickets; sex and sensation do. Are the nude encounter group images powerful and disturbing? Of course. By design that was their intent. But viewers are mostly unaware they are being manipulated into conflating those images into something other than the crude and misleading narrative they actually are.
Much, however, of what happened in Oregon, was truly shocking and undoubtedly indefensible. The Share-a-Home charade. The poisonings. Arson. Murder plots. Absolute demented lunacy being backed by a show of guns. Some may feel consoled that the bad guys were vanquished, frontier justice was delivered, jail time was served, and the red menace was exterminated. This was indeed a Shakespearean drama pumped up by the proverb “all is fair in love and war”. What began as a utopian vision morphed into a depraved conflict.
All along, behind the TV curtain, while the battles depicted in this documentary were being waged, the creation of our pioneering city was underway. That very city could conceivably be thriving today as the model eco-community envisioned were it not for 1000 Friends of Oregon initially blocking our growth which was happening way, way out in the outback, in undisputedly wild, wild country, coercing us into Antelope for the city services we lacked at that time.
We weren’t looking for a fight. We were, ironically, looking for a place to live a peaceful existence out in the middle of nowhere. We had no interest in living in Antelope other than as a temporary means to an end. We had no interest in guns except as a statement to locals displaying “Bag The Bhagwan” bumper stickers and touting “Better Dead Than Red” tee shirts, and others expressing violence toward the community, including the bomber of our Portland hotel. We were Zen cowboys. None of this craziness had to happen.
Yes, we should certainly disapprove of Sheela and her cabal of cronies, and we should righteously condemn their illegal and unethical acts, but deeper still, arguably they were fighting against both metaphorical and real enemies who have triumphed to dominate and essentially own our system of governance. They won. We lost. They won the battle but tragically people everywhere lost the war.
Contrast with our world today is irresistible. Instead of human potential we have human abasement. Instead of evolving into greater intelligence and compassion, we are descending into willful ignorance and venality. America is more divided than since the Civil War. Roots can be traced to so many missed opportunities for America to transform, this saga included.
It is striking to observe that Sheela exhibits traits similar to Donald Trump. She was imperious and clearly relished power. We can see that over 3 decades later she has not evolved and is unrepentant. She is still brash and impulsive. Speaking publicly she was aberrant in a variety of ways. She is syntactically challenged and does not present as being reasoned or empathetic. Instead she speaks an aggressive emotional language that both inspired her base and appalled her detractors.
Trump is a chaos president; Sheela was a chaos administrator who in a delusional manner has always absolved herself from blame. I recall her describing herself as a mama lion backed into a corner protecting her cubs and lair. Facing desperate circumstances, she became unhinged, causing peril for the commune which finally led to collapse. We can only hope to fare better when the inevitable storm clouds gather, and Trump is backed into a corner in America’s Wild Wild Country.
The filmmakers have performed a timely and impressive service which provides a cautionary tale of the dangers presented by unstable leaders, Machiavellian plots, and egregious government malfeasance. As for the eight million other stories in the naked city, they still exist but sadly are not in the telling of this incomplete tale.
Review by Harp. He was one of the Manjushree video guys who shot the vintage footage featured in Wild Wild Country.
More about the Netflix docuseries ‘Wild Wild Country’ on Osho News
Article by the same author on Osho News
Rancho Revisited – On June 22, 2014 Harp visits the Ranch in Oregon.