BINGE-R #80: Wild Wild Country + Spotlight
WILD WILD COUNTRY
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All six episodes now streaming
The story of an Indian guru’s vast following descending on a tiny American town in the early 1980s, Wild Wild Country is a compelling documentary where the truth – however you may perceive it through contradictory perspectives – is virtually always stranger than fiction. Maclain and Chapman Way’s six-part series is both a study of faith and a testament to escalating paranoia: the more those involved tried to defend what they genuinely believed in, the crazier and combative their responses were. You watch it with jaw-dropping disbelief but also genuine fascination, because no-one here is ever as two-dimensional as their adversaries believe them to be.
The first episode sets up the Rajneesh movement and their spiritual leader, the Bhagwan, who built a following in his native India with a charismatic mix of eastern mysticism, creative joy, and capitalist pride that swelled into a following large enough to cause political ructions. By the time they relocate to a 60,000 acre ranch in rural Oregon in 1981, the story has its many narrators established, most notably the Bhagwan’s increasingly driven personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, who wielded day-to-day power in what was a religion to some and a cult to others. One Australian devotee initially reveals her joyous acceptance of the Bhagwan, later she’s part of an assassination plot.
The orange and red-clad Rajneeshees built their own city from scratch, which bought them into conflict with local authorities. Through voting registration they overwhelmed the elections of the nearest town, a backwater for retirees named Antelope that had all of 40 residents. The conflict is familiar because the xenophobia of the elderly white residents is instantly familiar – substitute Sharia law for Rajneeshees and you have today’s Fox News audience – and the Rajneesh paint themselves as a persecuted religious minority. At the same time Sheela’s tactics, with her media baiting and hellfire promises, might suggest another contemporary American equivalent.
Nearly every prominent participant bar the Bhagwan, who died in 1990, contributes to the contemporary interviews; Sheela, who resides in Switzerland, looks like a grey-haired grandmother. There’s an intrigue in trying to divine how each fared in the looming fallout, which swiftly escalated after a Rajneesh hotel in Portland was bombed and the movement armed itself. At what point would it be ludicrous if the documentary didn’t so skilfully detail everything that happened? When the Rajneesh bussed in 6,000 homeless people in a bid to stack a county-wide election, or when there was a bioterrorism attack? Wherever you draw the line, like those at the centre of Wild Wild Country you’re drawn over it.
>> Other Reading: Stan has just acquired the BBC’s 2015 period drama Wolf Hall, a masterful adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel about the brutal application of power in the court of Henry VIII. Mark Rylance and Claire Foy, as Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn, give exemplary performances. I previously wrote about it for The Age [full story here].
Spotlight (Netflix, 2015, 128 minutes): Damning in its dedicated precision, Spotlight is the real life story of the investigative reporting team – editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – from The Boston Globe newspaper who uncovered a vast and systematic cover-up of child sexual abuse by the city’s powerful Catholic Church archdiocese. Director Tom McCarthy persuasively charts the legwork and devastation involved, as now adult victims recount not only how they were abused but also subsequently ignored, and he never reaches for grand monologues or triumphant vindication. This is a film about being in the trenches and trying to do what is expected of you, a struggle made explicit by a traditional power structure that the Church is a part of. An Academy Award for Best Picture winner, the movie addresses one of the questions of this age: what should a society demand from its institutions.
New on Netflix: Wonder Woman (2017, 141 minutes) turned the tables on superhero representation, with Gal Gadot’s righteous warrior taking the lead in a full-blooded adventure about confronting evil; teenage kicks rev up the culturally complex L.A. high school comedy Dope (2015, 103 minutes – not to be confused with the narcotics documentary series of the same name).
New on SBS On Demand: Uneasily funny until it is just uneasy, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016, 155 minutes) is about a German father trying to reconnect with his daughter who is working as a business consultant in Romania. It refuses to steer your sympathies, but incisively reveals the life of Ines (Sandra Huller), a child with few parental illusions.
New on Stan: John Hillcoat’s brutally reductive Atlanta crime film Triple 9 (2016, 116 minutes), is elevated by a stellar cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Aaron Paul, Casey Affleck and more; Geoffrey Rush, Ewen Leslie and Odessa Young star in the Australian drama (and Ibsen adaptation) The Daughter (2015, 95 minutes).
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