It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country became a certified cultural phenomenon. Maybe when it got the parody treatment on Saturday Night Live. Or not long after its March debut when an unusual hashtag started to trend: #ToughTitties.
Those two words, as any fan of the series can tell you, came out of the mouth of Ma Anand Sheela, uttered in an old news clip featuring the main character in Wild Wild Country. In the early 1980s Sheela was embroiled in international controversy as the chief spokesperson for an Indian guru known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, founder of an unorthodox religious movement that advocated free love and an open embrace of wealth. When it came to defending Bhagwan and the interests of his followers, Sheela was no shrinking violet.
“She’s such a powerful, strong-willed character. She speaks her mind,” noted Maclain Way, co-director of Wild Wild Country with his brother Chapman Way, at a recent public discussion organized by Netflix. At that event, meant to boost the series’ chances with Emmy voters, co-executive producer Mark Duplass addressed the flurry of reactions to Sheela on social media, commenting, “I would say 99 out of a hundred posts are from a lot of young women who say, ‘Sheela’s a badass. I love Sheela.’”
Sheela, the Rajneeshees and their leader might have remained relatively little known had Bhagwan not decided in 1981 to move his ashram to the “wild, wild country” of Eastern Oregon, on a 65-thousand acre tract of ranch land. Local residents, perhaps predictably, reacted with alarm to the sudden arrival of thousands of new neighbors setting up their own large-scale commune. The series recounts the bitter conflict that ensued as longtime residents fought a blistering battle with Rajneeshees for control of local government.
“You kind of have to understand from their perspective, the locals have no idea who Bhagwan Rajneesh is,” Maclain tells Deadline. “These people who are followers of his show up one day in the middle of the summer in 1981 and they all wear orange and they wear a mala, a necklace, around their neck with a picture of Bhagwan, and I think it was a lot of fear of the other and fear of the unknown… And so very rapidly the story becomes two groups that are entrenched against one another.”
Bhagwan had taken a vow of silence at that time so Sheela spoke for him, wielding tremendous power as the effective point person for the movement. She did not endear herself to locals by taking an aggressive stance on rights afforded to Rajneeshees under state law and the U.S. Constitution. To those who objected to what some considered her strong-arm tactics she offered the now-famous retort, “tough titties.”
“Bhagwan’s philosophy just was something that was intentionally provocative and controversial,” Maclain observes. “When he came to America I think that type of ideology of provocation and controversial statements resonated from the top-down. Obviously that’s what Sheela was like on TV and I don’t know if that really helped their cause.”
As storytellers, the filmmakers avoid coming down in favor of one side or the other—locals versus Rajneeshees.
“There’s a famous saying, ‘History is written by the winners.’ I think for many years how the [Rajneeshees] were covered in Oregon was through a very particular lens. Kind of a neat thing about being a documentary filmmaker is you get to shine a light on the story 35 years after it happened and you get to hear from the other perspective of what this group went through,” Chapman states. “I think they have a lot of compelling arguments about the kind of religious prejudice that they experienced out in Oregon, a certain sense of bigotry, sexism. It makes for a very challenging doc series when you get to hear from the other side.”
Commune members eventually took up arms—video in Wild Wild Country pictures some of them toting semiautomatic weapons—after the bombing of a Rajneesh-owned hotel in Portland, Oregon. The conflict with townspeople escalated to the point that Sheela and some associates allegedly orchestrated a plot to infect salad bars at local restaurants with salmonella, an incident that sickened more than 750 people.
Bizarre moments of that sort helped make Wild Wild Country binge-worthy viewing, a similar reaction that greeted the earlier Netflix true crime series Making a Murderer. But the two programs don’t belong to precisely the same genre, the brothers maintain.
“I think we’re true crime adjacent,” Chapman observes. “When we pitched the story to Netflix, we told them, ‘Look, this is not a traditional true crime story. The people that committed crimes pled guilty to those crimes. This is not going to be a whodunnit or based on evidence. It’s really a sociopolitical story of what happens to the peaceful, meditative, Indian, Eastern philosophy group and what forced them in America to arm up with AK-47s and take over political control of a town. What led them to the poisoning of 750 people? For us it was more of a sociopolitical investigation and less of a true crime investigation.”
Whatever the appropriate category, the series became ‘meme-worthy,’ in the words of one Netflix executive. And it restored Sheela from a forgotten figure to a position of prominence again.
At the Netflix Q&A she was beamed in by satellite from Switzerland where she now lives.
“Peace of my life has been disturbed,” she told the audience, referring to attention she has received from Wild Wild Country. “But I have been getting lots of positive responses. People feel inspired with my conviction, with my readiness to protect the community and Bhagwan.”
She added, “This experience that I have had—it was one in a million. There is nothing that…would stop me from talking. For me it is life-enriching experience and one should not hide such experiences or be afraid to talk about it.”