Why you should care
Because this was the first bioterror attack on U.S. soil.
Wild Wild Country, the new docuseries from filmmaking brothers Chapman Way and Maclain Way (The Battered Bastards of Baseball), feels like a story you should know about but, for whatever reason, don’t. The 1980s scandal of the religious figure called Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh by his followers got massive coverage back in the day — the Oregon story was one of the biggest in the Northwest at the time. But with news not being so national then, the story, as intense as it was, stayed local. Until the Way brothers got their hands on it.
This six-episode series is a stunning narrative about a religious minority group that got pushed up against the wall and fought back in a particularly ferocious way. A small town in remote Wasco County, Antelope (population 40) was taken over by Indian guru Rajneesh and his cultlike supporters — more than 2,000 of them. After purchasing the 70,000-acre Big Muddy Ranch, he started building a city for his followers: Rajneeshpuram, a utopia that could accommodate 7,000 people to exist self-sufficiently. But inside a year, disputes arose with the local ranchers, and everything started spinning into chaos. After the sect armed themselves and attempted to take over the city council, a series of conflicts ensued. Meanwhile Rajneesh flaunted his wealth with a fleet of cars and more development.
What makes it particularly poignant is that many issues that surface in the story line are relevant today.
In the first episode, the filmmakers explain exactly what ends up happening (a bioterror attack involving food poisoning to incapacitate the voting population) and use the remaining shows for a thorough exploration of what really went down. Maclain says they wanted to make the film “challenging on the viewer” to help them figure out how they feel about the situation. “We hope it generates conversations and, through those conversations, lends [us] some insight into how we deal with issues that we’re tackling today in our political environment.”
What makes it particularly poignant is that many issues that surface in the story line are relevant today: double standards, intolerance, racial strife, land use issues. As America struggles with electoral mayhem and all it entails, here’s a history lesson that will teach America about itself. It also examines why people join religious movements. Many are familiar with Jonestown and Waco; in a way, Antelope is just as big, but the complexities are a little more intriguing. Rajneesh was viewed by locals as an invader on American soil — an outsider who not only sought to rule his people, but also to control the whole local area around his ranch via the election process. And as the story unfolds, you’ll be double-guessing who’s right and who’s wrong.
“This story feels very big when you watch it,” Maclain tells OZY. The brothers crafted the story from a cache of archival videos and interviews from both locals from the era and members of the sect who appear to feel just as strongly now about what went down and who was right as they did all those years ago.
Wild Wild Country isn’t a routine true-crime series — not a typical who-done-it. From the opening moment you’ll be taken on a wild ride as you see the lengths that people, on both sides, will go to preserve their culture, religion and way of life.
Wild Wild Country debuts on Netflix on March 16.