Wild Wild Country: What Is A Cult? (Not Rated)

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While watching Wild Wild Country, I could not escape the thought that it was a story which could only have happened in the 1980s. To put it all succinctly, in 1981, an Indian guru named Osho (nee Chandra Mohan Jain, nee Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) founded a religion called Rajneeshism which joined Eastern mysticism and Western consumerism, then air-dropped his several thousand followers into Middle-of-Nowhere, Oregon, where they built a city from scratch, complete with a shopping center and a food court. Having been born in 1981, I obviously recalled none of this, though I later asked my father if he remembered the Rajneeshees. He knit his brows, recalled a moment, and then unfolded most of the salient facts about Osho, his followers, their location, and their modus operandi. For what might have been little more than a human interest story occurring in blips on the national news 37 years ago, the story of the Rajneeshees makes an unusually deep impression.

As the documentary series has turned into a cash cow over the last ten years, the word “documentary” has come to mean less and less. 30 years ago, the documentary was a predictably droll affair, or else avant-garde, made with an inconsequential budget. Harlan County, USA and San Soleil and For All Mankind rightly sit atop any list of the genre’s greatest achievements, and none feature actors, dramatic reenactments, slick segues, or newly conducted interviews with pros or critics. Rather, each is composed of original footage, found footage, and minimal voice over. Ken Burns’ major works (Civil War, Baseball, Jazz) were intermediaries of the emerging documentary style. Burns conducted scores of interviews, but stopped short of recreating lost scenes. Burns used long cuts and lingered contentedly on single images, and the cards which separated one act from another were minimal and bookish. However, what counts as a documentary in 2018 often looks more like a dramatic film with a few talking heads cutting in now and again for just a second or two. At the moment, Netflix includes their Chef’s Table series under the docuseries tab, and while I like Chef’s Table, the show is more highly manicured and tweezered than the fried reindeer moss appetizer at Noma. I would wager there are some episodes of Chef’s Table wherein transition shots account for half the running time.

At six hours long, Wild Wild Country might have fallen prey to the same stylish excesses of Chef’s Table, but, in the end, the show splits the difference between the early 80s documentary style and the modern style. There are no extended reenactments, no actors I recall, and the creators of the show lucked out that, back in the day, the Rajneeshees put a camera on everything. The footage is clear, plentiful, and diverse.

Directors Mark and Jay Duplass might have spun Osho in a dozen different ways, and they never exactly make up their minds as to what kind of story they have, which turns out for the viewer’s advantage. At times, they have a rather conventional drama, at times an adventure story, at times an elaborate portrait of Ma Anand Sheela, who was both the mouthpiece and sergeant-at-arms of the Rajneeshees. At its best, though, Wild Wild Country is an essay which performs an admirable job answering the question, “What exactly is a cult?”

While the Rajneeshees claimed to merge the spirituality of the East with the sensuality of the West, when seen from the perspective which nearly four decades offers, it might be more accurate to say that Osho was just a blissed-out Gordon Gekko with a taste for white robes. While someone could write a remarkable essay digging into the psychological roots of a cult, the appeal of Osho seemed to have been largely aesthetic. He wore an unwaveringly serene smile, his massive wealth came from unknown reserves, and he drove around in a Rolls Royce like some kind of Saudi prince. His reputation for profundity was buried in an ever more remote past, for once his followers came to the US, Osho said nothing publicly for years, but relied exclusively on Sheela, his secretary, to communicate with the faithful. In this way, he was not like Jim Jones or David Koresh, who were fiery rhetoricians and far more accessible than Osho, who collected luxury automobiles and had a receipt spike of speeding tickets. Koresh and Jones were also far more burdened by their messianic roles, but Osho tied the mantle over his shoulders like a Lacoste sweater. Like the Branch Davidians, the Rajneeshees kept a sizable cache of guns on hand, but their violence was limited: a few attempted murders, and the greatest act of bioterrorism is the history of America, which involved covertly spraying Salmonella on a bevy of salad bars in The Dalles, Oregon. The threat level posed by the Rajneeshees was just north of antics, just south of real villainy. The Duplass brothers use their sources to make ample reference to Osho’s remarkable teaching, but none of that teaching is actually quoted in the documentary. This absence confirms the viewer’s growing suspicion that you just had to be there. The appeal of a cult is momentary, eminent, suddenly emergent, and resists an accurate summary. Unlike apocalyptic cults, which grow stronger with failed predictions of the end, the city the Rajneeshees started fell apart when Osho fled the country. While the Rajneesh movement still claims membership today, they by no means occupy an entire city, intimidate municipal governments, or command the attention of Hollywood elites, as they once did. Strike the shepherd and the sheep scatter. Perhaps a cult can only be known in retrospect. When the whole thing falls apart after the charismatic leader dies, it was never of God, for God speaks from beyond the grave.

By the end of it all, you could almost believe that back when Osho was merely Chandra Mohan Jain, he sent away for a cult leader kit he saw on television and—results not typical— the fellow just made an awful lot of hay while the sun shone. This is not to say the Rajneeshees had no real believers. There must be at least one to keep the plane aloft. The most fascinating figure in Wild Wild Country is Philip Toelkes, the kind, mellow, starry-eyed lawyer who kept the Rajneeshees’ lights on for nearly a decade, even when the full weight of the law was bearing down on them. The Duplasses appeal to Toelkes often, and he seems now to have been a fellow who knew the law, but also probably supported Greenpeace before it was cool, knew Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and had a subscription to National Geographic. In the documentary, Philip Toelkes holds his head high, remembers the era clearly, speaks with dignity and aplomb, and still credits Osho as a great man. When St. Paul teaches that faith is “the substance of things hoped for,” he ascribes remarkable power to faith in general, not only the Christian faith in particular. Faith has some kind of power to call future things into existence now, even if those future things are awful. Faith is what you’re going to get, so make sure your faith rests in the right thing. Toelkes’s faith in Osho is both sad and wonderful. He thinks far better of him than he deserves. Every parent knows the feeling.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

One Response to Wild Wild Country: What Is A Cult?

  1. Finished this last week. Thanks for the write-up. The neat little tie-in with Rajneeshpuram’s current residents at the end is worth considering too.

    As much as I wanted to empathize with Osho and his leadership, I couldn’t shake his scam artist, televangelist vibe.

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