Wild, Wild Country (Chaplain and Maclain Way)

Poster for the documentary showing a close-up of Bhagwan's face tinted orange.
This is a 6-episode documentary about the time a cult started a commune in rural Oregon, USA and five years later ended up with members in jail for wire-tapping and bio-terrorism charges. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh left his ashram in India and moved to Oregon in 1981, and brought with him thousands of followers, dozens of Rolls Royces and a very real disrespect for the law.

Wild, Wild Country depends heavily on contemporary news footage the directors heard about from an archivist. The Ways interviewed some of the key figures, including current and former members of the cult as well as some of the opposing townsfolk and law enforcement.

The great part is the way the archival footage is used to structure the story, and the interviews with Sheela Birnstien and Jane Stork. Sheela is funny and outspoken as she always was, but also cold and unrepentant. She’s a fascinating figure and always interesting to watch. Jane is more sympathetic – she explains how she came to join the cult and the effect it had on her with simplicity and honesty.

The less-great parts are the restricted focus and the reluctance to really question the interviewees when they are self-serving or evasive. There’s very little detail about the cult before or after this event. We only learn about the cult’s beliefs from sensational news clips (which are hard to take seriously with their exclamations about sex cults! and Satan!) or people who are still making money from the cult. And both Sheela and the cult’s lawyer are allowed to explain or avoid any topic they like. It’s not clear that one of the interviewees, Jayananda, was married to Sheela for some of the time in Oregon, or that she bigamously married another guy there too.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by documentary directors like Errol Morris who put their interview subjects under a microscope. But the “we’ll show both sides and let you figure it out” method seems lazy to me. I don’t have the access that the directors do, so I’m relying on them to find the truth and present it.

And since Netflix gave them 6 episodes to play with, I think there’s room to explore conflicting details without being biased. Shorter documentaries can take a point of view within a complex topic, but longer ones have a responsibility to do more than “he said, she said”.

Part of the entertainment for me is that Sheela once came to my part of the world and created her usual media spectacle here. Her infamous “tough titties” line was in response to being told that the rural town of Pemberton didn’t want her cult to move there. In the 1990s I saw Rajneeshees in Perth and Fremantle and was offered some pamphlets once. So I was interested to learn more about them.

Overall it’s a good documentary, well-paced and interesting. But true crime fans will want to know more about the cult activities and will need to look elsewhere. Here are a few links to get you started: