“Ma Anand Sheela’s A Very Complex, Compelling Subject” Say Wild Wild Country Directors
Netflix’s recent docu-series, Wild Wild Country, brings to life the fascinating story of Osho’s Rajneeshpuram commune in America. The Way brothers – the director duo behind the show – take us behind the scenes of the most talked-about show in the country right now
Who wouldn’t want to establish their own city, governed by a self-defined set of principles, and self-sufficient to the extent of having of private airports and dams? As you know by now, someone actually did, with Rajneeshpuram. Netflix’s recent six-part docu-series, Wild Wild Country, resurrects a lost slice of American history, telling the incredible story of Rajneesh aka Osho and his commune in America. Set in a tiny town of ranchers in Oregon, it captures the bizarre and near-implausible turn of events between 1981 and 1985, when Osho’s secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, called the shots and helped the leader establish a 64,000-acre commune at the Big Muddy Ranch in Wasco County.
Salmonella, weapons, betrayal and, of course, sex — the explosive contents of the documentary have made it a ubiquitous topic at dinner tables. Behind the series are siblings Chapman and Maclain Way. During the filming of their debut 2014 documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball, the duo was introduced to a cache of 300 hours of archived local news footage of the Rajneeshees – around 7,500 full-time residents and thousands of other itinerant devotees. MW spoke to the Way brothers about the show’s rousing reception, possible spin-offs, Sheela and their style of filmmaking.
How does the reception to your documentary make you feel?
Chapman: It’s been really interesting, this past month. We’d been working on this project for over four years. Even in the United States, not many people remembered the story of Bhagwan Rajneesh (before the release of Wild Wild Country), so we were a little worried that it might not be something that very many people would be interested in. But to see the reaction, and see people engage in all the material and complexity, has been really exciting for us.
Do you have any previous ties with the Rajneesh movement?
Chapman: What was really interesting to us while growing up… in fact, both my brother and I were born when the whole Rajneeshpuram saga happened in Oregon. So we grew up not knowing about Rajneeshpuram or the Rajneeshees. Also, what really helped us in making the series is that the sannyasins were really excited about how someone from the outside was going to tell the story. [Even] the people from Oregon helped us finding different sides to the story.
Ma Anand Sheela came across as the fiercest character in the entire saga. What was it like, interacting with her?
Chapman: She’s a very complex, compelling subject. Speaking with her 35 years after the episode, she doesn’t have any regrets or resentment; she doesn’t apologise. She feels what happened was very justified in the context. Talking to other sannyasins [about her] and getting to know her, it was fascinating to see how far this woman would go to protect her community, to protect her master, to protect this utopian nation they had [built]. She felt very strongly that there was a lot of religious persecution and bigotry; and she was doing her best job as the secretary of this movement to protect everyone. My biggest takeaway was that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’
You’ve said that every day you are on a different side in the Antelope v Rajneeshpuram debate. Which side are you on today?
Maclain: (Laughs) While making this [documentary] for so many years, we would have these hours-long conversations amongst ourselves, about who was right and wrong; who’s saying the truth here etc. I think ultimately what we have started to take away is that it’s not all black or white. All said and done, the Rajneeshees probably were victims of persecution of some kind or another. But in some ways, they could be a destructive force; in fact, they did try to terrify people. And so were the people of Antelope. They did feel that their town was taken over; their way of life was under threat. But I think they didn’t welcome the Rajneeshees as well as they think they did. So my thoughts still remain mixed. Wild Wild Country is a story of two sides that are entrenched in their own beliefs, to an extent that they fail to find any form of conflict resolution.
With hundreds of hours of footage still unutilised, can we expect a spin-off/follow-up to WWC?
Maclain: Right now we don’t have any plans of a follow-up show, because we haven’t had a lot of time. But we’ve just told the story of Rajneeshpuram in Wild Wild Country. There’s still a whole chapter that continues today in Pune. Obviously, Osho is no longer around, but it’s still interesting to see people believe in his teachings, and a whole new interest from modern groups recently.
Osho is known to be a sex-positive guru in India. Was it a conscious decision on your part to cut down on sex and nudity in WWC?
Chapman: You see a lot of sannyasins saying on the documentary that sex was just a part of the spiritual beliefs. But that’s (sex) what the media really latches on to. They told us when they came to Oregon (and were building Rajneeshpuram), there was barely any time for sex. They believed it was just blown up, to sensationalise their story.
As compared to other documentaries, yours had more melodramatic elements. Is this your style of documentary-making, or was it something the producers insisted on?
Chapman: Some people just want to watch documentaries for the information, but Mac and I work a little bit differently. We try to create a submersive experience. We’re much more excited about giving a platform to our characters, and the audience needs to go on this rollercoaster ride that our characters create. We love to utilise music to create that experience, where you really feel like you’re inside the story, and the story is unfolding in real time. So it’s very much a decision on our part, and we are excited to continue doing it.
Which documentary filmmakers do you look up to?
Maclain: I was a history major, who was always kind of obsessed with non-fiction stories and non-fiction books. My brother went to film school, proper; he learned to be a cinematographer, and editing as well. So documentaries were a nice thing that we could team up and do together. It was fascinating to see these long and entertaining documentaries for research. People that we grew up watching were Kevin Burns and Errol Morris. Then more recently, Asif Kapadia, and Amy (Amy J Berg) and Joshua Oppenheimer; it’s been fascinating to see these guys push the boundaries. It’s a tremendously fascinating time for documentary filmmaking.
Have you visited the Osho ashram in Pune?
Maclain: No, we had always planned on doing it, but never really had an opportunity. It’s still something I won’t totally write off. Making WWC is a big part of my life. I think talking to followers who have come to Osho after he died would be a really interesting perspective.