Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

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gcgiles1dollarbin
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Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

#1 Post by gcgiles1dollarbin » Mon Apr 02, 2018 11:57 pm

I recommend the six-part series Wild Wild Country, which a search tells me has only cropped up on mfunk's top ten list for 2018. It would likely make my list, too, if I hadn't stopped making top-ten lists. With remarkable interviews of major players, riches of contemporary footage, and a really strong musical soundtrack, the series captures the incredibly moving and occasionally ridiculous story of the Bhagwan Rajneesh commune in Oregon during the early '80s, honoring the complexity and redemptive potential of all involved, even if some of them strayed into criminal activity. Very infrequently the music gets a little too cloying, overwhelming testimony, but when the music is this well-written and performed, I can understand the filmmakers' temptation to foreground it. Aside from that, it's quite a trick to elicit genuine sympathy from the viewer when it comes to members of a group who irrationally decide that
SpoilerShow
poisoning an entire town with salmonella might give them a county election edge,
but the Ways have achieved this without trivializing any of the ugly things that happened. It's about the collision between Eastern religion and conventional American Christian values; the hubris of wealthier westerners following gurus; greed and power and bigotry; redemption after disillusionment; and Rolls Royces. Magenta clothing. Assassination plots. Free love.

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Re: Netflix Originals

#2 Post by mfunk9786 » Tue Apr 03, 2018 12:41 am

It’s really impressive. The amount of archival footage and careful construction is staggering. The interview subjects (I love the lawyer who is perpetually blubbering about something) are all larger than life. It’s a really impressive long form doc, and while it can be a little repetitive at times, the quality of the filmmaking more than makes up for those occasional shortcomings. Also a rare doc that skillfully makes you empathize with all sides of a major disagreement on some level. Watch it.

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Re: Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

#3 Post by mfunk9786 » Wed Apr 04, 2018 11:37 am

Since I was gonna make a 3rd post about it, and it screened all as one piece (a la the O.J. doc) at Sundance, I figured the split made more sense in New Films, and I certainly would consider it more of a jumbo-sized feature documentary than a TV series, but of course YMMV.

Anyway, the reason for the post: The Ringer has a really good podcast, "Cults, Sex, and the American Dream in Wild Wild Country," under their Channel 33 podcast stream during which the host talks to the two directors and Mark Duplass about this film. It's enlightening with regard to where all of this incredible footage came from, and how much of it needed to be parsed in order to get to the finished product. Apparently the whole idea behind making it in the first place was because an archivist approached Maclain and Chapman Way, not the other way around as you might expect.

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Re: Netflix Originals

#4 Post by aox » Wed Apr 04, 2018 11:43 am

mfunk9786 wrote:It’s really impressive. The amount of archival footage and careful construction is staggering. The interview subjects (I love the lawyer who is perpetually blubbering about something) are all larger than life. It’s a really impressive long form doc, and while it can be a little repetitive at times, the quality of the filmmaking more than makes up for those occasional shortcomings. Also a rare doc that skillfully makes you empathize with all sides of a major disagreement on some level. Watch it.
I agree with all of your points; it's a fine documentary. However, with the bold, I found no empathy really for the town's people, and even less so when they attempted to explain their reasoning. It seems to me that they started the "war". It wasn't until the Rajneesh were then harassing the town in retaliation that I began to lose sympathy for them as well. However, I kept having to remind myself that the town's citizens seemed to have started the fight and couldn't finish it.

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Re: Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

#5 Post by mfunk9786 » Wed Apr 04, 2018 11:56 am

Their culture is a conservative and cloistered one, but they are retirees who see Antelope, for better or worse, as a place where they can live out the rest of their lives in relative solitude. I can empathize with the idea of putting down roots somewhere with that goal in mind and then being inundated with a massive amount of people who have in essence the polar opposite in mind. They are absolutely not totally in the right, and some of their personalities are toxic and belie some serious personal biases or worse, but any time anyone decides to descend upon and uproot any other culture, it seems like it's inherently a problematic thing to do. There are other secluded locations in the U.S. that would have been better fits for this compound, but just the presumption that this would be welcomed with open arms seems like a naïve one on their part.

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Re: Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

#6 Post by gcgiles1dollarbin » Wed Apr 04, 2018 3:43 pm

SpoilerShow
Not quite sure why I'm redacting this, except that ignorance of the story leads to greater delight and astonishment while viewing the documentary. I watched this with my wife, and while we are both fairly progressive, far-left-of-center people, we definitely came down on opposite sides. I cut the sannyasins a lot of slack, even when Sheela and her coterie turned out to be aspiring assassins. You got the sense that she was capable of almost anything criminal to support her master; and yet, her interviews were cogent, thoughtful, frank, and she accounted for her time there in a way that was rarely evasive (even if she persists with some of her grudges), while now, of course, she seems to be a rather remarkable steward of the assisted-living homes in Switzerland. You also have to remember that she was first introduced to Rajneesh when she was a teenager, so her adult development was rather constrained and distorted by being wholly focused on this one man. As for the "traditional" Oregonians, like aox, I initially saw institutional powers (Oregon DOJ) and reactionary conservatism (Antelope townspeople, ranchers, etc.) spoiling what began as an earnest retreat for people with a radically different mindset, an attempt to build an isolated, utopian community that actually has a long American tradition going back to the early 19th-century. But as my wife pointed out, they didn't exactly execute friendly outreach programs to the older inhabitants of Antelope who are obviously--by virtue of their age and politics--going to be wary of any change, let alone something this bizarre, as mfunk points out. There was a lot of entitled arrogance among the leaders of the commune, probably created by wealth and privilege as much as by convictions; they simply didn't give a shit about the neighbors. They immediately read the townspeople's fears as hostility before they even tried any measure of diplomacy; and then, of course, they engaged in a hostile takeover of the political landscape in Wasco County, beginning with the town of Antelope. In the end, it was a struggle between establishment politics and wealth.

In my opinion, the worst, most reprehensibly cynical thing the sannyasins did was to bus homeless people to their commune in order to build a voting population. They obviously didn't have the resources to handle their needs, particularly mental health resources, and when they started doping these unwitting pawns' beer in order to "control" them, it reconfirmed the arrogance and sociopathic contempt members of the sannyasin leadership had toward outsiders.

There's no denying that Rajneeshpuram was ultimately doomed to fail with this kind of deeply flawed approach, and yet I haven't seen another documentary that takes such care with the appeal a community like this holds for many people. As viewers, we can't help but share an interest in seeing this place succeed, which makes it all the more tragic when it disappoints us by yielding to the usual pitfalls of greed, jealousy, criminality, and spite.

The Ways never mention it, but the perpetrator of the Hotel Rajneesh bombing in Portland was Stephen Paster, a member of a militant Muslim organization called Jamaat ul-Fuqraa. Sheela and many other sannyasins used this as an excuse to arm themselves, but they conveniently assumed it was local bigotry that led to the firebombing. Before we knew about Paster, my wife and I thought that maybe it was an inside job to foment a siege mentality and create justifications for stockpiling weapons. As it turns out, neither is true.

It seems apparent that Rajneesh's death was an assisted suicide performed by his personal physician, which may or may not have been encouraged by the "Inner Circle" that supplanted Sheela. Am I right in reading it this way, given that Jane Stork's justification for poisoning the doctor was that he was acquiring assisted suicide drugs?

Finally, I can only imagine what would have happened to Stork and Sheela if this had all happened after 9/11. With terror enhancements leading to life sentences (see If a Tree Falls), I'm almost certain those two would be in prison to this day. As it stands, a more moderate, just outcome resulted.

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Re: Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

#7 Post by Soothsayer » Wed Apr 04, 2018 3:59 pm

gcgiles1dollarbin wrote:There was a lot of entitled arrogance among the leaders of the commune, probably created by wealth and privilege as much as by convictions; they simply didn't give a shit about the neighbors. They immediately read the townspeople's fears as hostility before they even tried any measure of diplomacy; and then, of course, they engaged in a hostile takeover of the political landscape in Wasco County, beginning with the town of Antelope. In the end, it was a struggle between establishment politics and wealth.
Sorry to take this out of spoilers (don't really see the need herue) but this is an important point to reiterate. I'm baffled by those who only see the residents of Antelope as closed-minded intolerant bigots. Did they watch the same thing?

Imagine living in a small town that as far from urban as it gets (that's about 99% of Oregon east of the Cascades), specifically because you want a quiet disconnected community. Then, through no action of your own and with 0 agency afforded to you, a very large and aggressive (the Rajneesh and his inner circle were aggressive in their actions from the start, before their militarization) group comes in and buys a huge tract of land within earshot of the entire town. Then that group proceeds to totally disregard any respect to their neighbors and only acts upon selfish accord, what they wanted to do. There was zero attempt for the group to acclimate to the people of Antelope.

You're a citizen of Antelope and now your entire lifestyle's been manipulated without any choice or agency, and no attempt has been made by the interlopers to understand you. Where is the fault of the town?

Are the Antelope citizens all perfect beacons of humanity and tolerance? Who knows, but there is not any clear indication put either way with the footage and interviews shown in this series.

edit: Also, is there no respect paid to the claims from the Antelope citizens in their initial complaints that the Sanyassin were misusing their land, per-code? I've seen several accusations that these complaints weren't justified and have yet to agree with any of them. And it comes down to the same issue, lack of agency.

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Re: Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

#8 Post by gcgiles1dollarbin » Wed Apr 04, 2018 5:33 pm

There are no clear indications, because like most things in life, people's motivations are complex, and that speaks to the excellence of this series: it explored that complexity when it could have easily resorted to a hicks-vs.-hippies narrative.

I live just outside of Portland--literally just south of the city limits--and even here, there is tremendous resistance to change joined with the usual assortment of American flags, guns, trucks, racism, etc. The sworn enemies of some of my neighbors are the Others, whether they happen to be Black residents from NE Portland ("We don't want the MAX line south of the city limits; it will bring crime!"), or Californians using their inflated real estate equity to buy property in PDX, creating havoc in the housing market ("Left-wing, rich elites!"). In some cases, their fears are justified (housing market), but without fail, they are motivated by fear of change. Like you say, most of Oregon, as the crow flies, is pretty reactionary and deeply conservative. They don't have the numbers, but they have the tradition and the land--even Oregon's statehood charter intended this territory for whites only. Oddly enough, given that separatist origin, Oregon continues to be a beacon for anything off the grid, whether it's a commune devoted to free love, a white supremacy group holed-up in the woods, or ranchers wanting to wrest land from the federal government (as per the Malheur conflict recently).

What played out politically in the documentary was the "tyranny" of the majority, a classic struggle that particularly resonates today, with politically motivated gerrymandering to contain the voting populace, with the electoral college that continues to give underpopulated, rural, traditionally conservative regions a handicap in presidential elections, etc. Antelope had forty residents before the sannyasins arrived with their hundreds! In a democracy, the majority typically rules, particularly in local elections, because of Benthamite principles of "greatest good to the greatest number of people," so regardless of seniority or dates of arrival, shouldn't the commune, under this democratic principle, have had the greatest influence on the region? We could argue that they didn't zone properly, that some international members skirted residency requirements, etc.--even before leadership lost their minds and did terrible things--and these are all good reasons for resisting that influence, but even if they had built up this commune/township with impeccable compliance, don't you think the same resistances would have been at work? I certainly think so. This leads to the next question: what motivates this resistance to even the idea of a Rajneeshpuram--i.e., a commune that becomes a township with local political influence?

It was interesting that the DOJ wanted to go after them on a separation-of-church-and-state issue at first, which seems justified until one remembers Utah, pointing out the double standard and hypocrisy of such an approach. (Half my family are apostate Mormons living in SLC who deeply loathe the church and its history of corruption, so that immediately came to my mind when considering the motivations of the DOJ.) What's more, many of the residents who opposed them did so on Christian religious grounds. So it's not like some secular, governmental critique was at work; it was flagrantly religious on both sides. This early attempt to go after them demonstrates, too, that the sannyasins' fears of persecution were not entirely unfounded. When they stupidly drifted into criminality, it only gave the state legal means to rid itself of Rajneeshpuram, which had been its object from the very beginning.

Like I said, Rajneeshpuram was a hostile takeover of Antelope--and a deeply strange, deliberately provocative one at that--and while I sympathize with many of the longtime residents caught up involuntarily in the storm, I still find myself wrestling with some of the political principles involved. Which, I think, is another testament to the excellence of this series!

EDIT: spelling
Last edited by gcgiles1dollarbin on Wed Apr 04, 2018 6:54 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

#9 Post by Gregory » Wed Apr 04, 2018 5:54 pm

I've had a longtime interest in this history and devoured this series, absolutely amazed at just how much footage there was that I'd never seen but at times livid at some of the unquestioned claims and spinning of events by interviewees on all sides.

The often-repeated claim (including in the film) that Antelope was a town of retirees who were there to live out their golden years in peace and seclusion doesn't seem supported by facts. Census data show that less than half the residents are 65 years of age and older. Most of the Antelope residents featured in the film were clearly of retirement age when the interviews were conducted, but naturally the early ’80s were about 35 years ago now.

And it's also important to bear in mind that as soon as the Rajneeshees arrived, before they'd done anything menacing, newspaper accounts seemed to stoke fears that interactions between the commune and the town residents would not be good. Soon after, when "Better dead than red" T-shirts and bumper stickers appeared along with "funny" announcements that it was "Rajneesh hunting season," the conflict became a self-fulfilling prophecy. This kind of thing was the tinder that the Hotel Rajneesh bombing ignited, leading to the all-out paranoia fueling the urgency of the group to achieve absolute power over the immediate area. The commune's misguided attitude that they were bringing life to an "empty," dead place with their irrigated agriculture and spiritual presence (a persistent justifying narrative on the part of most settlers and real-world "utopian" projects) also no doubt justified their motivation that anything they did to shape the area was positive.

It's a bit tricky to accuse the locals of being bigoted when essentially their worst fears were borne out. But even before the nefarious Rajneeshpuram leadership had done anything untoward, the entire commune had already been preemptively judged and vilified by most of the frightened longtime residents.

Think for example of Congressman James Weaver, who's shown testifying to an empty chamber about his suspicions that the Rajneeshees were behind the salmonella poisonings. His statements turned out to be correct, and he speaks about how he went from being seen as a kook to a hero when the facts vindicated his opinion. But by his own admission it didn't seem like he had any hard evidence about why people had gotten sick. His accusations were largely motivated by xenophobia that just happened to be correct as evidence later showed. But that doesn't mean that uninformed default suspicion of outsiders is justified in advance of actual damning evidence. But here it did turn out to be the kind of threatening takeover that xenophobic impulses and rhetoric so often entails, so it's difficult to effectively assess or assess the bigotry of the locals in the eventual conflict. This probably would have all ended very badly even if all the "better dead than red" and "open season" jokes hadn't taken a sinister turn after with the Portland hotel bombings.

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Re: Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

#10 Post by gcgiles1dollarbin » Wed Apr 04, 2018 6:53 pm

As I mention above, except insofar as the Muslim militant who firebombed the PDX hotel might have been exploiting the preexisting divisions between locals and Rajneeshis, the incident had absolutely nothing to do with homegrown bigotry, which, nonetheless, was very rhetorically poisonous, as you rightly indicate. These people hated the commune members, even before they had any reason other than religious difference, and I think that comes through clearly in the documentary.

I'm also glad you mention the fact that the sannyasins--regardless of their religious background--were excellent stewards of the land they purchased, arguably better than the ranchers around them. I am always astonished by the access-to-land arguments that ranchers have wielded against the federal government (again, see Malheur), when, in fact, there couldn't be a more detrimental or selfish form of public land management than cattle ranching! It shows the political motivations that informed the 1000 Friends of Oregon's resistance to Rajneeshpuram on the grounds of land use, when that not-for-profit is ostensibly a conservation organization and, by all rights, should have supported this more sustainable management of land resources.

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Re: Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

#11 Post by Gregory » Wed Apr 04, 2018 7:31 pm

gcgiles1dollarbin wrote:As I mention above, except insofar as the Muslim militant who firebombed the PDX hotel might have been exploiting the preexisting divisions between locals and Rajneeshis, the incident had absolutely nothing to do with homegrown bigotry, which, nonetheless, was very rhetorically poisonous, as you rightly indicate. These people hated the commune members, even before they had any reason other than religious difference, and I think that comes through clearly in the documentary.
Yes, the hotel bombing stoked the Rajneeshees' fears of their neighbors, even if it wasn't carried out by the party they assumed it was. The series could have shed a little more light on this point, I thought.
I'm also glad you mention the fact that the sannyasins--regardless of their religious background--were excellent stewards of the land they purchased, arguably better than the ranchers around them. I am always astonished by the access-to-land arguments that ranchers have wielded against the federal government (again, see Malheur), when, in fact, there couldn't be a more detrimental or selfish form of public land management than cattle ranching! It shows the political motivations that informed the 1000 Friends of Oregon's resistance to Rajneeshpuram on the grounds of land use, when that not-for-profit is ostensibly a conservation organization and, by all rights, should have supported this more sustainable management of land resources.
I didn't really say they were excellent stewards of the land but that they thought they were bringing new life to an otherwise barren desert. In one of the early episodes I believe one of the former commune members describes their irrigation methods as blooming a desert, and I think anyone versed in the history of water in the West will tend to look critically at such utopian claims about the use of a limited and contested resource. In terms of average annual rainfall I don't believe it's technically even a desert, but it is a useful narrative for the Rajneeshees to claim that they were bringing life to a dead zone, and indeed they apparently thought the Bhagwan's presence did as much or more for this than their irrigation. They piped the Bhagwan's speeches into the hen houses to encourage the laying of more eggs—not mentioned in the series but an important aspect of how rational this commune was. Yet I don't dispute that it was an overgrazed terrain and that the surrounding ranchers had not treated the landscape in a sustainable way either.
Last edited by Gregory on Wed Apr 04, 2018 7:48 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

#12 Post by aox » Wed Apr 04, 2018 7:40 pm

Not to mention, the Rajneeshees decided to make their town/city 19 miles away from a hamlet of less than 100 people who were not retirees looking for peace. I really think these townies were conservative bigots who picked a fight and lost (but eventually won with everyone to thank but themselves in the end).

EDIT: I am not siding with the Rajneeshees here.
Also, is there no respect paid to the claims from the Antelope citizens in their initial complaints that the Sanyassin were misusing their land, per-code? I've seen several accusations that these complaints weren't justified and have yet to agree with any of them. And it comes down to the same issue, lack of agency.
19 miles away.
It's a bit tricky to accuse the locals of being bigoted when essentially their worst fears were borne out. But even before the nefarious Rajneeshpuram leadership had done anything untoward, the entire commune had already been preemptively judged and vilified by most of the frightened longtime residents.
this^

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Re: Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

#13 Post by mfunk9786 » Wed Apr 04, 2018 7:54 pm

You guys are right in that the initial reaction was almost certainly a bigoted one, but it is a pretty big stretch for rural conservatives to adjust to or welcome such a thing without questioning it, and this was right on the heels of Jonestown. I don’t like the way they approached it one bit, but I can’t say I hold it against these people too much to find this arrival concerning.

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Re: Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

#14 Post by gcgiles1dollarbin » Wed Apr 04, 2018 11:31 pm

Gregory wrote:I didn't really say they were excellent stewards of the land but that they thought they were bringing new life to an otherwise barren desert. In one of the early episodes I believe one of the former commune members describes their irrigation methods as blooming a desert, and I think anyone versed in the history of water in the West will tend to look critically at such utopian claims about the use of a limited and contested resource.
Yes, I misread your comment. Sorry about that. All the same, I tend to think that such a smallholder farm is a relatively positive trend (compared to sustaining metropolises like Las Vegas or Phoenix, for example, drying up the entire Colorado River, etc.) and a good model of land use, but I see your point with regard to the Procrustean attempt to reshape a desert and redirect water resources, as opposed to honoring climates and terrain, practicing permaculture, etc. And they weren't about to discourage population growth, either. I just think that compared to the ridiculous amount of water used to raise cattle, for example, these free-love folks weren't the primary culprits for water shortages, if that was the basis of anyone's argument against the Rajneeshis.

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Re: Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

#15 Post by gcgiles1dollarbin » Sun Apr 08, 2018 4:12 pm

Interesting take on Rajneeshpuram from a PDX alt-weekly journalist who posed as a homeless person in order to be bused into the compound in 1984 and report what he saw there as a resident.

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Re: Wild Wild Country (Maclain and Chapman Way, 2018)

#16 Post by Gregory » Sun Apr 08, 2018 5:03 pm

I was just reading that yesterday and was thinking of posting it here, as it fills in such a gap in the documentary: the ground level, the perspectives of people who came to the commune as powerless or disinterested sannyasins or as those fleeing homelessness.

Also in the same issue, the author of the novel Geek Love, who was a journalist at the paper for years, did this great, revealing interview with Ma Anand Sheela.

Sheela's statement that she preemptively decided to submit to him and willingly be the patsy doesn't make sense to me, since her rationale for doing so was that this was in exchange for his teachings and that "for these teachings to be parted with, total surrender was required by him." But certainly not to the extent that she surrendered! And at the end of the interview:
I have not read any of his works. But I have listened to his discourses. The funny part is that I used to fall asleep in his discourses. It was a big joke. He would come into the discourse hall, I would look at him for about two seconds, and I would be in a deep sleep.
A more plausible explanation for her willingness to be the underboss and consigliere seems to be a desire for power and visibility, though she would not later admit this.
Also, this would seem to explain a lot:
One of the reasons that I portrayed myself so fierce was to attract people's attention on me and divert attention from him, because his life was threatened. Severely. When we came to America, he had just survived an attempt of assassination.
But what were the odds of the assassination attempt by the Hindu fundamentalist being repeated in Oregon if they were really there just to farm and live in peace? As with all of her statements, it seems to be a matter of framing events and pretexts to respond to questions and accusations without actually explaining anything.

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