Wild Wild Country directors: 'It truly felt like we made this series in a different political world'

Shikha Kumar

Apr 27, 2018 15:24:21 IST

When brothers Chapman and Maclain Way began telling people on their travels that they were working on a documentary series on Bhagwan Rajneesh, the first reaction was often curiosity — they wanted to know who he was. “We would then say that the series was about Osho and their eyes would light up. People had an understanding of who Osho was as a historical figure, but few knew that he had been this controversial character. It was fascinating how the story wasn’t very well remembered in America,” says the director duo, in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

In the month since Wild Wild Country released on Netflix, the series has virtually swept over the popular culture landscape, dominating conversations on social media, generating polarising reviews and op-eds, and also leading to never-heard-before exclusives from former followers of Bhagwan Rajneesh. The raving hype is something the directors never imagined when they stumbled upon 300 hours of archive footage at the Oregon Historical Society four years ago. Shortly after they had wrapped up work on their documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball, an archivist at the Portland-based organisation pointed them to the story of an entire city in Oregon that became the Indian guru’s commune in the early ’80s.

Wild Wild Country directors: It truly felt like we made this series in a different political world

Wild Wild Country makers Chapman and Maclain Way.

An episode reveals the incredible transformation of a barren 64,000-acre ranch into Rajneeshpuram – there were settlements, a dam, an airport, a discotheque, a meditation centre, pizza parlour and a boutique that only retailed clothing in varied shades of red, worn by the Rajneeshees. As thousands of followers trooped in from different corners of the world, the place was deemed “a magnet for crazy people.”

What inspires the most intrigue is the almost fanatical devotion from the sanyasins – thousands of intelligent, educated, privileged people giving up everything in hope of a paradisiacal way of life. “At a base level, I think people were just attracted to what it felt like to be a family or a community, a lot of them had had difficult childhoods or never really felt like they fit into their own society or family. That was something we heard from almost everyone who had at one point joined Rajneeshpuram,” says Chapman.

As the brothers began digitising the footage, a mix of news footage and clips from the ranch taken by the sanyasins themselves, they were intrigued by the starkly different perspectives that emerged. “Whether it was the current followers of Osho or the former followers who lived on the ranch, Antelope ranchers or US government officials, Oregon state officials or investigative journalists, everyone had their own sophisticated analysis with respect to what happened. As documentary filmmakers, we found that really interesting – to include all the different theories and leave it on the audience to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s telling the truth and who’s not, and who’s reliable and who’s not,” says Maclain.

In fact, it’s this multi-perspective narrative that’s left most viewers conflicted about who to side with – the sentiments change at different points in the story, oscillating between support for the local Antelopians and the Rajneeshees. The directors reveal that this was intentional, and that while filming, they wrestled with feelings of right and wrong too.

Bhagwan Rajneesh and Ma Anand Sheela.

Bhagwan Rajneesh and Ma Anand Sheela.

“We would spend five days with the sanyasins and they would talk to us about what it was like to dedicate their money and five years of their life to building this utopian city, and how they genuinely felt like the government overreached and persecuted this religious minority group… how outside pressure caused the collapse of their utopian dream. And they would make effective arguments that would convince you of that,” says Maclain, adding, “Then you would spend another five days with an Antelopian, and they would explain to you what it was like trying to raise a family inside Antelope when you would look out your front window and see a Rajneeshi dressed head to toe in red and carrying a semi-automatic weapon.” Conversations with Oregon government officials unravelled different set of fears; of them witnessing the happenings at Rajneeshpuram and getting flashbacks of the Jonestown massacre from a few years ago.

Chapman says that this was the biggest challenge, to adequately portray as many different characters’ perception of the story as possible. “You could talk to a hundred different sanyasins and there would be a hundred completely different perceptions of what happened. We wanted to give all the characters a platform to speak their truth, and then find a coherent narrative in which we could string all these storylines together in a way that the audience would do their own critical thinking to see how they felt about all these issues that came up.”

The series’ focus on the controversial events at Rajneeshpuram – immigration fraud, sham marriages and attempted murder – has also attracted criticism from viewers who believe that it failed to provide a peek into what a regular day at the ranch was like for the Rajneeshees. It’s a section the brothers had to do away with while condensing the story into six hours. “The criminality that happened on the ranch took over the story in a way that it was hard to bring it back to your every day average sanyasins. We were consciously trying to interview a lot of the decision makers of Rajneeshpuram, to hear from them on why these big events happened the way they did.”

Ma Anand Sheela in a still from Wild Wild Country.

Ma Anand Sheela in a still from Wild Wild Country.

The tough-as-nails demeanour of Ma Anand Sheela, who was Osho’s secretary from ’81 to ’85, jumped at them from the archival footage and they knew she had a story to tell. They tracked her down to a small town in Switzerland where she ran a health centre and conducted a series of interviews with her. “She had been leading a completely different life for the past 30 years. When we told her we were interested in exploring her side of the story. She was sceptical, but she had also never been given the platform to talk about Rajneeshpuram,” says Maclain.

Many of the themes the series touches upon — voting laws, the gun rights debate and land use issues — find parallels in modern-day America. The director duo finds it fascinating how relevant the theories have become, unintentionally. When they began making it, Barack Obama was still president and Donald Trump hadn’t even announced that he was going to run for presidency.

“It truly felt like we made this series in a different political world. As we were editing it, these deep constitutional battles of election interference and mayhem, something that America is struggling with right now, emerged. I think it also speaks to the rise of tribalism in a certain way – you see the Rajneeshees and the Antelopians become absolutely entrenched in their beliefs and you never see them coming upon any kind of resolution. On an international scale, that’s a very relevant lesson… the consequences of what could happen when groups refuse to compromise.”

Updated Date: Apr 27, 2018 15:24:21 IST