M̶o̶v̶i̶e̶TVMonday: Wild Wild Country


(The Idiosyncratist is in suburbia, where the only new film is a Dwayne Johnson thing based on a 1980s videogame.  It may be fine, but I decided to watch a six-hour Netflix program instead.)

Here we have an overlong, not particularly revealing documentary with a title that doesn’t suggest anything about its content.  It probably should have been called “Rajneeshpuram,” because that is the subject.

It is the story of a cult that began in Poona, outside Mumbai.  After some unpleasantness with the Indian government, the group decided to relocate in 1981.  It bought a 64,000-acre plot called Muddy Ranch in a mostly empty area in the state of Oregon.

Eventually, several thousand Rajneeshees settled there, setting up a city with housing, roads, a sizable airstrip, a health center and secluded housing for its leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, as well as parking for his large fleet of Rolls Royces.

The documentary consists of old film footage and interviews with now-older Oregonians and former sannyasins, as the cult members were known.

The story that unspools is one of conflict between the Rajneeshees and 1) the people of Antelope, OR, a town of 40; 2) officials of Wasco County, population 25,000; 3) Oregon prosecutors and, 4) the U.S. Attorney based in Portland.

The sannyasins vastly outnumbered local residents, but this did not stop the group from developing a paranoia about their new home.  Some of what they did:

— Moved enough sannyasins into Antelope to vote in a new mayor, take over and expand the police force and give the town a new name, Rajneeshee.
— Established another new city, Rajneeshpuram, on the ranch and set up a second, very heavily armed police agency that seemed prepared more for war than peacekeeping.
— Stationed roadblocks at various points on ranch roads, deployed foot and helicopter patrols across the ranch and also wired key ranch locations with listening bugs.
— Arranged sham marriages between American sannyasins and foreign ones to evade immigration laws.
— Poisoned two county officials with salmonella-laced glasses of cold water offered on a hot day’s visit.
— Imported thousands of street people from all over the country to pad the local voting rolls and take over Wasco County government.  When the street people became belligerent, they were drugged with Haldol.  When the new voter registration plan was kiboshed by the state, the street people were dumped in cities around Oregon.
— Distributed salmonella in restaurant salad bars and kitchens in the county’s largest city.  The effort sickened 750 and sent hundreds to hospitals. The purpose was to suppress voter turnout on an election day.
— Set fire to the county planning office.
— Planned the killings of the US Attorney in Portland, other county officials, the Rajneesh’s personal doctor and possibly an investigative reporter at the state’s largest newspaper.

This is weird stuff.  The documentary hints strongly that the Rajneesh’s personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, the effective cult CEO, organized all of it.  But putting the plans into action involved many other actors.

Sheela spoke daily with the Rajneesh, and she claimed the skullduggery was his idea.  (He had not spoken publicly since 1980, which raises the unposed question of how he continued to inspire his devoted worldwide congregation of 10,000 or more during those years.)

When the whole thing broke up in 1985, the Rajneesh started talking again and blamed Sheela.  He pled guilty to immigration fraud and returned to India.  She served a relatively brief prison term and moved to Switzerland where, surprisingly, she now operates a nursing home.  Some other sannyasins served short sentences.

This documentary has received a lot of attention and praise.  Many reviewers puzzle that the Rajneeshpuram story did not receive more national attention back in its day.

My guess is that if it had happened in or near a major city, it would have got more attention.  Rajneeshpuram was three hours outside Portland, Oregon’s largest city and in a part of the state that is largely unpopulated.

The city where hundreds of people were poisoned has fewer than 20,000 residents and not a big news presence.  If it had happened in Chicago or San Francisco or New York, it would have been a big story.

The interviews in the documentary don’t add much.  Yes, Sheela talks, but it is hard to trust her word.  The Oregonians from the nearby town, mostly older ranchers, come off as bigots at first and then, as the story proceeds, maybe not so nutty after all.

A lot of interview time — too much, I’d argue — is given to three former sannyasins.  All are well-spoken and appealing.  They do not account for the popularity of the cult, or of any cult, for that matter.

What’s missing from the documentary is any discussion of the internal workings of Rajneeshpuram.  I’ve read up a bit on this and will discuss it tomorrow.

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