The new EPOSODIC section Sundance offered this year was a brave move to compartmentalize a documentary series to screen all episodes in one day. One offered at the historic Egyptian Theater was a Netflix distribution to air March 16, 2018 called Wild Wild Country.
I wasn't exactly sure if there was a misprint in the scheduling because the advertisement stated a 6-hour documentary combined with a question and answer session to follow. A bit taken-a-back, I thought to myself that with the limited number of screening venues this could be difficult offering one full documentary series at one venue for a whole day. I was curious.
I read further that the Way brothers, Chapman and Maclain were the directors of the film and was thrilled. I was going to do everything in my power to get a seat-at-the-table with this film. I knew their previous work The Battered Bastards of Baseball which I deem excellent. A remarkable story told that is now a part of the history of Major League Baseball and written in their annals.
The Way brothers' work embodies the exact style of documentary story telling that President and Founder of the Sundance Institute, Robert Redford encourages storytellers to unearth in-depth and truthful informational reporting.
Chapman and Mcclain are young filmmakers who are attracted to telling forgotten stories. Their first film was a forgotten story to the public but not within their own family because their grandpa and one of their uncles played a significant role to be memorialized. Their research gave them entrance to meeting historical archivists across the state of Oregon.
One of the archivists at the Oregon Historical Society inquired of their next project. At the time, the brothers were uncertain. The man suggested that they might consider the research of a forgotten true Oregonian tale that occurred in the early 1980s of an East Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who built a massive commune in the middle of Oregon. The Way brother’s recall, "He told us a riveting account of cult leaders, mass poisonings, assassination attempts, bombings and an aborted utopian paradise." The man ended his conversation with telling the brothers that he has over 250 hours of never-before-seen film footage that chronicles the entire story.
I can only imagine that Chapman and Mcclain knew they were on top of a bountiful treasure-chest of information that fit their storytelling interests of forgotten narratives. At the same time wondering if it really happened because the accounts were simply bizarre. The initial research left them with some trepidation as the two recall. "So much of the writings about the Rajneeshees referred to them as that "terrorist sex cult." Continuing, "As we began meeting with former members we found a collection of intelligent, highly accomplished, thoughtful people who had been passionately committed to creating a new model for an ideal society." Adding, "But, we also quickly found that prejudice runs both ways. The Rajneeshees branded the people of Antelope (the small town close to the commune acreage) as a group of backward, small-minded, intolerant, cowboy conservatives."
Chapman and Mcclain were not interested in the crimes and sensational aspects of the story though it is part of the actual narrative; their main focus was to examine how such a travesty could come and go without leaving more of an impact or foresight that should not happen again.
"We wanted to explore how this guru and his group challenged our sacred American institutions." The brothers noting again, "Wild Wild Country is about a clash of cultures between the disciples of Rajneeshpuram and the citizens of Antelope and how both sides claimed to be on the right side of the Constitution--using it as both a shield and a weapon for their own survival."
The brothers conclude, “We hope to raise fresh questions of church and state, minority religions, tolerance, fanaticism and the building of the American dream in this wild, wild, series of events."
The small and quiet town of Antelope, Oregon, in the late 70s was the pride and joy of a population of forty inhabitants. A community of working class people moved to the peaceful countryside where they could afford to buy a house and own property. Also a ranchers community, it had at its disposal a store, a post office and a church. Antelope was described as a place of tranquility and safety where everyone helped one another.
In 1981, news of an East Indian cult leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, purchases the 80,000 acre Big Muddy Ranch in the Wasco County butting up against Antelope's boundaries. This was before the internet so the town's people didn't know much about the leader or his inner circle. They had no reason to believer that there might be negative ramifications of such neighbors.
The Bhagwan and his followers began to establish a utopian city called Rajneeshpuram--a center for his growing religious movement. Their hope was to create a model for society that protected one from the influences of power, wealth and corruption. The grounds were designed to house over 7,000 people, grow their own food, maintain its own service departments such as fire and police, open restaurants, a shopping mall and a private airstrip. A self-contained community was not alarming and thought to be commended.
A year later, a massive conflict peaks between the two groups over unconscionable activities regarding land use, biological warfare, assassination attempts, voters rights, drugs, and more. The Antelope residents worried that their community could be taken over by a once peaceful group that turned to aggressive and hateful behavior. It is time for the town to explore legal action to protect their way of life.
Filmmakers Chapman and Mcclain Way explore the reasons this forgotten story is among America's most unbelievable accounts of good intentions gone bad in Wild Wild Country.