Spoiler alert: If you're looking for answers at the end of "Wild Wild Country," Netflix's ambitious, outrageous, engrossing docuseries about the rise and fall of a love-and-guns commune in Oregon in the 1980s, here's a tip: You're going to have to come up with your own.
The directors of the six-part, six-hour series that premiered on Netflix in March 2018 spent the better part of four years neck deep in the story of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers. In 1981, Rajneesh and his clan alighted on a 64,000-acre (25,900-hectare) ranch in Wasco County, Oregon with the idea of building a utopian city, only to run spectacularly afoul of the local citizens, the state and, ultimately, the United States government.
Director brothers Chapman and Maclain Way slogged through more than 300 hours of original footage to unearth this truly bizarre story. They conducted dozens of interviews, spent more than a year researching it and another year and a half editing the documentary. They also sat down for five days in Switzerland interviewing one of the most fascinating and complex characters of this or most any other documentary, Bhagwan's secretary and the commune's de facto leader, 68-year-old India-born Ma Anand Sheela.
After all that, if the brothers Way couldn't tie up this sprawling story for you in a nice neat little "The End" type of way, it clearly can't be done. And that's OK. It's better this way.
The Complicated Tale
"The hardest part is just getting the story to make sense. Just making sure it's coherent," Chapman Way says. "Especially with this story, with the complex issues. There's land-use law, separation of church and state and the Constitution, immigration law ... there were so many complex components of this that almost 90 percent of your time was spent just making it understandable for an audience."
The documentary is eminently gettable, even if the actions of those in it are often anything but. "Wild Wild Country" is a winding true tale of a clash between insiders and outsiders, church and state, freedom and tyranny, young and old, arrogance and modesty. For many, to be sure, it's a story that comes down to simple right and wrong. And the wrong is pretty easy to see.
But, amazingly, more than 30 years after the story behind "Wild Wild Country" came to a head, exactly who was right and wrong is still hard to pin down.
Who Was Right? Who Was Wrong?
Who's to blame for all the problems that almost immediately beset Rajneeshpuram, the commune — yes, some call it a cult — that rose outside of tiny Antelope, in north-central Oregon? Were the hippie-like, maroon-clad Rajneeshees, who practiced open sex and held wild ceremonies at "Rancho Rajneesh," trampling on the rights of those already there in trying to build their city? Did they threaten the local folks' way of life? Or could the townspeople of Antelope have been a little more accommodating, a little less wary, a tad more accepting?
Did the Rajneeshees' fear of someone taking their Oregon ranch or refusing to let them build justify its purchase of a virtual cache of assault rifles? "I will paint the bulldozers with my blood," the always-quotable Sheela told hungry journalists early on.
What can possibly explain the Rajneeshees' lawlessness — bombings, wiretapping, immigration fraud, assassination plots, arson, attempted murder and what was labeled as the largest bioterror attack in the nation's history? (Another spoiler: The Rajneeshees poisoned the food at local restaurants.) No amount of sugar can coat that. Crimes were committed. People paid for those crimes. Sheela paid.
But, maybe, it was the Rajneeshees who were being persecuted for their way of life. They certainly felt that way. And they weren't about to take it sitting down.
"Jesus said, 'Turn the other cheek,'" Sheela says in footage used early on in the documentary. "Well, we say take both cheeks."
The Need for Balance
The story that played out in Oregon in the early '80s was a tangled one, and one that the Way brothers felt compelled, from the start, to play down the middle.
"What we found was that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," Maclain says. "You talk to Rajneeshees and Sannyasins [another name for the followers of the Bhagwan] who will absolutely, horribly disagree with the actions that Sheela took, [but] they feel empathy for her and understand that she was doing the best job that she could to protect her community and to protect her master.
"On the flip side of that, there are a lot of Oregonians who see the actions that Sheela did and they will categorize them as — quote — pure evil. Part of the challenging part of the series is that the audience is going to have to decide for themselves."
The directors play up the rival sides through the use of that 300-plus hours of news footage and current-day interviews with a handful of key players. The story portrays the Rajneeshees, on one hand, as peaceful leftovers from so many Summers of Love, and on the other as gun-toting, sex-happy devotees of a bearded Rolls Royce-loving guru. (Bhagwan, almost a bit player in "Wild Wild Country," had more than 90 Rolls Royces at Rajneeshpuram at one time, along with two jets and a private airstrip.)
The Oregonians are seen as older white people just trying to live out retirement in the open spaces of their home in peace and quiet ... and as gun-toting, small-minded, overalls-wearing hicks with bad hairdos. "Conservative cowboys," one outlet called them.
Also playing a part in the story: A handful of federal officials. They're either government thugs or the great upholders of the American way, depending on who you ask.
Who Is Ma Anand Sheela?
No single person embodies the dichotomy that viewers of "Wild Wild Country" must embrace more than Sheela, who manages to be alarmingly combative and disarmingly charming in both the footage from the '80s and in the Ways' extensive interviews with her. Sheela was, all agree, the principal architect of Rajneeshpuram's rise and probably the one most instrumental in its fall. She almost literally sat at the right hand of Rajneesh. She later spent 29 months in prison for her crimes.
Today, Sheela Birnstiel lives serenely as head of another commune; she runs two homes in Maisprach, Switzerland for the mentally and physically disabled.
"We spent a lot of time with Sheela, even when the cameras weren't rolling," Chapman says. "Sheela is incredibly dedicated to her patients and to her clients. Her clients love her very much, and she's very involved in their care and their rehab and their lives. I think this story asks very important questions of, 'Does everyone deserve second opportunities? Who deserves a redemption story?'"
Who knows? The questions just keep coming in "Wild Wild Country." And that's OK. It's better that way.