Wild Wild Country Review: Either a Clever Challenge to the Audience, Or a Stupid Faith in Conmen

I watched it! While cleaning my entire apartment today. And it was a very interesting experience to watch, I think the directors might have been doing something really clever with how they presented the series. At least, I hope so. They were either being really clever or really really stupid. (for more Osho coverage, here is my article on their India years)

This isn’t really directly related to Indian film, the ostensible topic of this blog, but it is related to India, and it is a film (a very very long one, but still a film), so I think it is appropriate to cover? Anyway, I want to cover it because that “really really stupid” possibility is nagging at me and making me worried that is what people are seeing when they watch this instead of the “really clever” option.

The thing is, there are NOT two sides to this story. The Osho people were on the run out of India ahead of Indian authorities for drug dealing and prostitution, they came to Oregon and built an illegal community, forced their way into local government and then POISONED PEOPLE. And planned assassinations and attempted to carry them out. And that’s on top of taking massive amounts of money from their followers and encouraging them to leave their lives and dedicate themselves to the community. Oh, and also of course the violent and sexual encounter groups which just couldn’t be healthy.

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(And took Vinod Khanna away from his babies. And many many other people away from their babies, and their parents, and everyone else in their life who wasn’t willing to give it all up and move to Oregon)

But the show presents it as though there are two parts. If anything, it leans towards the Osho folks. We have hours of footage of the very charming Sheela Silverman in her cozy room directly facing the camera. And meanwhile the government attorney is shot in an anonymous conference room, in a formal suit, backlit with kiltered angles. Sheela is our friend, is honest and trustworthy and delightful. The government attorney is dark and untrustworthy, a heartless force of the state.

It’s more than just the visuals, it’s the background as well. Sheela and the other Osho folks, we get their whole life stories. Meanwhile, the residents of the town of Antelope are presented in their living rooms with their animal heads and simple art on the wall. But they have no backstory, I don’t know what their jobs were, where they grew up, why they decided to move to the town of Antelope. The only person on that side who gets a backstory is the founder of Nike. And he is presented as an untouchable golden boy hero, never humanized, no story of family jokes or childhood moments, nothing like that.

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(His parents divorced when he was 2 and that same year his twin brother died in an elevator accident. We get none of that, but we get ten minutes on the death of Sheela’s husband)

One top of this, there is the avoidance of dealing with other evidence, we hear of an investigative reporter and his massive series of articles going all the way back to why they were driven out of Pune, and yet we do not hear any details of why they left Pune. We see a tiny bit of the film made of a Pune encounter group, but rather than focusing on the content of the film, we just hear the reaction from the people who watched it, and the smooth explanation that it was an unfair film, taken without permission, and they don’t follow those practices any more anyway.

If this is a really really stupid film, then the problem is that the filmmakers got caught up in the cult psychology themselves. They liked Sheela and her wit and intelligence, and they didn’t like these old tight-lipped small town folks. So they sold the story of these misunderstood freethinkers and selfish small minded towns folk who just weren’t willing to understand. Of a town and a county that were afraid of change and openness, that had out of date values and were just as blinded by their Christian faith as the Osho folks were by their faith in Rajneesh. They wanted it to be a story of clever people laughing at stupid people, and they were inviting the audience to join them in laughing with the clever people who saw that the whole world is just a joke.

But if this is a really clever film, they were challenging the audience to see the truth for themselves. To recreate the cult experience, to see all the charm and warmth given by the leaders, the false intimacy, the sense of being “better”. One of the first things told to the audience about the cult is that they were looking for only the top of society, the most successful and intelligent people. And that is how they sell themselves, with wit and an attitude of being the “cool kids” that appears to the educated and upperclass types. And which would also appeal to the kind of people watching a Duplass produced documentary on Netflix.

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(She seems very cool, both in her tough clever bitter 80s mode, and in her caring loving elderly woman mode. But in the 80s, she was ordering the poisoning of people. And in 1999, the Swiss government convicted her of planning murder, again. She may own two nursing homes, but that doesn’t make her a saint now, any more than spouting philosophy made her one in the 80s!)

In contrast, the townspeople of Antelope are very much not the type to watch a Duplass documentary on Netflix. They are older and uniformly white and in dowdy boring clothing, and they have animal heads on the walls. The way they talk about the Osho folks (I am purposefully using the modern name, by the way, as a reminder that this is a story that has not ended), it sounds like racism, or fear of some kind. We are presented with two sides to this story, the one with the charming intelligent “people like us” and the other with the small town small-minded “people like them”. The challenge is, will we be able to get out of our own heads enough to look at it objectively and see which side is correct?

Over and over again, we are presented with the straight-forward boring usual approach, and the free-thinking exciting wonderful approach. One example that stood out was the way the arrest of Rajneesh was handled. First we get the basic fact, that he was flown slowly around the country for almost 3 weeks and held in jail after jail with the general population. And then we get the state’s attitude, which is a blunt acknowledgement that they were playing a game, traveling him all over in order to weaken him and make him more willing to plead guilty once he arrived in Portland since he had a better sense of what incarceration would be like. And finally, we get the story from Rajneesh’s lawyer of the conversation he had with Rajneesh when he decided to plead guilty. Rajneesh said that he was weak, he couldn’t survive jail, and besides the government would clearly break any rule to get him, and so regretfully (although he knew he was in the right), he would choose to plea guilty and leave the country.

Clearly his lawyer/follower still finds this a deeply touching and meaningful memory. And it is easy to get swept up in the drama and tragedy which is how he sees it. But if you take a step back, well, the boring regular practical version from the state’s attorney is exactly what it was. They dragged him around from jail to jail to make him see what prison life was really like and make him more willing to cut a deal. And he saw what prison was like, didn’t like it, and cut a deal. Just like any other convict, soften him up a little and he’ll decide to plead guilty instead of fighting.

That’s how cults work, and that’s how conman work. They take any fact and they find a way to present it so that it supports their view of the world. That is what this documentary does for them, over and over again. The building of Rajneeshpuram wasn’t illegal land development that was harming the environment, it was a wonderful accomplishment bringing life back to dead earth. The busing in of homeless people wasn’t attempted voter fraud, but bringing dignity and love to forgotten members of society. And, most dangerous, it was the people of Antelope who were the aggressors, with their guns and their big talk, and it was to defend themselves that the Osho people began to bring in guns and poison and drugs and everything else.

And what makes me think this documentary was very very clever, in making the viewer culpable as well, in making us struggle to sympathize with those clearly in the right, in challenging us to see through the smokescreens to the real facts instead of putting them on a plate in front of us, is that is how the film ends. With the former town council member who survived the whole experience, who found the documents in the town dump that started the first court case, who still lives in Antelope, saying that what they did was create an enemy in order to unite the people against them. And that’s what this documentary did, it created an enemy for the viewer, the regressive folks of small town Oregon, funded by the millionaire Nike owner, versus the open-minded funny free thinking Osho folks. And then it challenged us to see through it, to see who the real enemy was.

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(Hint: the real enemy were the ones with all the guns and target practice and poison and so on)

One more thing that I found fascinating both about the story shown in the documentary, and how that story is presented, is the gap between the information known in India and the information known in America. The Osho folks present the idea that they wanted to expand beyond what they could do in India, that they were persecuted by religious fundamentalists, and implied that Indira Gandhi and her authoritarian government unfairly tried to prosecute them. But in fact, they were so clearly illegal that the Congress party and the opposition fund themselves in a rare moment unity in wanting them prosecuted. Not only that, they were so clearly over the line that even in a country where they were NOT completely against all religious traditions, people still found them odd. Which would be clear with just the slightest amount of investigation.

And on the flip side, in India, the Osho center today is treated as a normal place to go for meditation and retreat. The Oregon years are forgotten, the mass poisonings and druggings and so on. This documentary is specifically about the Oregon years, but even here they spent not even five minutes to establish what had happened in India before Oregon, the early signs of darkness and reasons to look for an escape. Doesn’t even bother to point out the parallel between Rajneesh’s flight from Oregon and his flight from Pune, in both cases with no warning to the larger community of followers. We may be in a more global world now, but that only means wealthy powerful types can travel and share information, the quiet local communities in Oregon and in Pune don’t have that luxury. And sometimes documentaries aimed at a particular audience (Americans who watch Netflix) choose not to take advantage of that luxury, aware it may make their audience uncomfortable.

Which brings me to the other part of this. The people of Antelope were frustrated by the way their new “neighbors” seemed to have no interest in compromising, in coming together. Which the Osho people spin as the townsfolks not understanding their open attitude toward life, their sense of humor and so on. But we get a few descriptions of these same people arriving in India to visit the Pune compound, they talk about how over-whelming India was with all the noise and people and slums. And what a relief it was to reach the compound where everything was beautiful and happy.

These are not people who really want to connect to outsiders. Whether it is in small town Oregon or Pune India, they want to reach the compound and be with clean beautiful happy people, not have their beliefs confronted, not risk contact with the outside world. Which is, sadly, the thing that is still most true about Osho visitors today. They have their gorgeous massive complex, with armed guards standing in front and everything provided inside. You can go straight from the airport to the compound without ever risking contact with the actual people of India, without anyone who may puncture your balloon of joy with a reminder that there is real work to be done in the world.

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(Not exactly like the rest of India)

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11 thoughts on “Wild Wild Country Review: Either a Clever Challenge to the Audience, Or a Stupid Faith in Conmen

  1. I always got the impression that Osho (and his followers) was a bit kooky.But the scope of evil they got up to in U.S is not something that’s widely known.Goodness.I hope that’s one 80s trend that does not become popular once again.

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    • So I guess their plan worked. They left India for Oregon on the run from tax authorities and bad press in India, and no one in Oregon (or their new international followers) knew about India stuff. And then they went really crazy in Oregon, but were confident that news wouldn’t reach back to India.

      On Mon, Apr 2, 2018 at 7:42 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I have a hard time believing that Sheila did all those crimes without rajneesh knowledge, especially since they met every day. If anything it is more likely that rajneesh asked Sheila to take those steps.

    I’m unclear, based on the content of your article, what you are referring to in the title. what is the clever challenge, and what demonstrates blind faith?

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    • Are the filmmakers challenging the audience to see through the charm of the Osho members, and that is why they present the Osho members in such a favorable light? Or were the filmmakers legitimately taken in by Sheila and the rest of them and that is why they were presented so favorably?

      For myself, I feel like either Rajneesh was just lazy and didn’t care what was happening and let Sheila and the rest take control and go in a strange direction, or his paranoia was driving it. Either way, he has a large degree of responsibility for what occurred, people were there to follow him and it was his job to make sure they were safe and happy.

      On Mon, Apr 2, 2018 at 11:34 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Ok thanks for clarifying. Maybe the filmmaker was trying to give the viewer the experience that a rajneeshi might have had. Most documentaries about cults make the cult look either heinous or ridiculous, and the viewer is left dumbfounded as to why that cult ever existed, survived, thrived. Whereas this documentary took the opposite POV, which therefore is inherently more explanatory, as well as more scary (as n, wow I see how this could easily happen to me, too)

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        • Yeah, that’s what I think. But I saw some articles talking about how paranoid the opposite side was, how small-minded the townspeople were, etc. Which made me alarmed that maybe the point had been missed and instead of that feeling of “yeah, okay, this makes sense and seems harmless” which turns into slowly dawning horror, some viewers may have never fully gotten out of the “this makes sense” mindset.

          On Mon, Apr 2, 2018 at 11:38 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. Osho has tremendous knowledge and oratory skills on all the religions, he is considered as the Original Thinker.
    His books on different religious /Spiritual topics are enlightening.
    He has taken punishment for the mistakes of his followers surrounded him.
    .

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  4. Maybe because I grew up around people who look and talk like the folks in Oregon, I didn’t see what you see in terms of the film makers “setting them up” to look small minded, or “setting viewers up” to see them as the “bad guys”. The Antelope crowd are pretty articulate, they are clear that they were fine with the outsiders at the beginning, just a bit bemused. Even speaking about a group that essentially set up a military camp, poisoned a neighboring town, and tried to take over local politics, the Antelope folks keep pretty even tones, and don’t start going off on all foreigners or something. Their animus is against this particular group of people, and they feel it for very good reason.

    I do agree that this documentary encourages viewers to do their own thinking. The very points you make–the parallels between Osho’s flight to the US and then his flight from the US; the relentless in-ward facing of the Osho community in Oregon and Pune; the escapism of past and current followers; are all there, even just in the visuals that are shown.

    As you say, the film makers are quite clever, highlighting the terrifying “banality of evil” of all of Osho’s followers they interview by contrasting their self-serving (Sheela) or sentimental (the Australian woman and Osho’s lawyer) accounts of their behavior with calmly presented facts about what went on, and how law enforcement people went about trying to hold them accountable. The couple of clips they show of the “encounter sessions” were more than enough for me, and their dishwater “we don’t do that anymore” denials are vastly insufficient to counter those sights and sounds.

    Finally, I like that the filmmakers don’t take a position on whether Osho knew about or even dictated Sheela’s and other followers’ hi-jinks. Because, ultimately it doesn’t matter. Osho set up the system in which evil thrived, and didn’t take action to stop it until he was forced to.

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    • I had the same feeling of really liking the Antelope folks, because I grew up around folks like them too (lived downstate when I was a kid). But it disturbed me that we got so little backstory on them, and so much of the period TV footage was focused on the “I’ll just shoot them” kind of rhetoric. There were some filmmaking choices there to make them less immediately sympathetic. Which I think had a good idea behind it, to make us feel like we got the cult experience, clearly part of the Osho appeal was the deep immediately emotional connections and so on, which the Antelope people and other parts of society wouldn’t have offered in the same way, would have been more practical and factual instead of talking about their whole life story.

      And yes, I agree with you on how they treated Rajneesh. He is culpable because he was there, he was the brand they were selling, he was benefiting from what was happening. That’s more than enough.

      On Tue, Apr 3, 2018 at 7:03 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

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