Thoughts on Wild Wild Country
As someone who is mildly obsessed with cults I knew I would watch Wild Wild Country, a documentary about a cult in Oregon from the 80's, on Netflix eventually. After it was over I had so many unanswered questions the documentary raised about society and groups of people in general.
I think Wild Wild Country does a good job of trying to be as unbiased as possible. Usually you are rooting for the people outside the group that are trying to shut it down because they are either abusing people or taking people away. For the scenario in the documentary it is hard to stick to one side for the entire fight. The high ground gives way on both sides as they are reduced to petty and brutal methods to achieve what they want.
I knew this wasn't an ordinary cult because in the first episode Sheila, the guru's secretary, admits they were tricking people in India. It was a ruse but they didn't advertise it. Their group in India attracted mostly white intellectuals who were searching for meaning and peace in their lives outside of the normal confines of Western society. They focused on combining the material with the spiritual not becoming poverty stricken to reach a higher plane. The Indian guru Rajneesh doesn't cast himself as God or God's confidante on Earth but he is the undisputed leader. His picture is on everything involving the group.
If I was alive in the early 80's I could see myself migrating up to Oregon to see what all the fuss was about out of sheer boredom more than anything. One of the main draws of cults is finding a new way to exist than society dictates. Then once you arrive you either feel different and are converted instantly or feel the same but don't dare leave or admit you made a mistake. The psychology of cults is ever evolving. It is so easy to think only stupid people who are easily manipulated get tricked into believing the crazy things charismatic leaders say. But interviews with people who have been on the inside rarely seem like the type that are easily tricked.
It is hard to pinpoint the root cause of these fringe groups never succeeding in the long run. I would chalk it up to the frailty and corruptibility of humanity, fear and power. Unless you are in the middle of nowhere distrust will brew between you and your neighbors. The more different you are to them the more they will fear you. The 80's hysteria surrounding cults was alive and well since Jonestown was an all too recent memory barely in the rear-view mirror. This was one of the first dark clouds over the Rajneeshees and their city.
They advocated and believed the exact opposite of their older, conservative Christian neighbors. They were too different. They didn't try to convert anyone in Antelope, the neighboring small town, but their presence and way of life was so offensive the small town residents started scheming about how to get rid of them. It seems like if they had picked another location with more liberal leanings they could have survived longer. Remote areas where you can buy a lot of land for cheap are also where the most conservative people live.
There are many stand offs between the Rajneeshees and outsiders but they usually don't get violent. After a bombing of Rajneesh owned hotel things start to escalate towards the natural conclusion of the group dispersing and the audacious idea of a new type of city dies. This also shows how even with the best intentions the internal workings of the city of Rajneesh Puram would have blown up eventually. Jealousy and the pursuit of power corrupt almost every organization.
Utopian societies can't exist because humans aren't perfectly logical creatures. When you start drugging homeless people you brought into your city to keep them under control and poisoning people in the community to win elections the best intentions aren't there anymore. It is never made clear with rapid cuts between government experts and news stories which allegations are true and which ones are just hype.
The most poignant moment is the slow panning shots of the abandoned city the Rajneeshees worked so hard to build turning into a wasteland with broken windows in the A frames staring out into the wild. I always find it sad looking at derelict buildings and wondering what they used to look like before the decay. Then a quick cut to the Christian summer camp that has replaced this self built town. The parallels of these two groups as both being cult like is obvious enough that one Antelope resident comments that they are remarkably similar but the summer camp people are better neighbors and don't wave guns in your face.
Again the bias against someone who has different beliefs than you is obvious. You could even argue that this camp is brainwashing kids which is worse than a gathering of consenting adults. I know different church camps vary wildly and I went to a few when I was a young teen with nothing nefarious going on behind the scenes. But I can't imagine the Rajneeshees holding summer camps for children you have to pay for and people being fine with it. They would worry about indoctrination and warping the minds of children.
The ending was obvious with everyone scattering to the wind as their dream died slowly behind them. I think the fact that this city lasted as long as it did shows how determined the Rajneeshees were to create something new. Their optimism is infectious and you wish even retroactively that they will succeed in the long run. Wild Wild Country raises more questions than answers about people and their impact on the land, culture and on others.