I’m not running for cover, mister. I don’t run for cover. And a person like you make me run for cover? That is a joke.
In bringing the bizarre story of Rajneeshpuram to a mainstream audience, the Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country has also presented us with one of the most fascinating living characters of our time, Ma Anand Sheela. In the early 1980s, she left India as an envoy of the spiritual guru Rajneesh and came to the US to secure a plot of land for his followers. Within a year, she had purchased one of the largest ranches in central Oregon, became the de facto leader of the 10,000-member organization, and had turned their commune into a fully functional city. She presided there during a period of high tensions between the Rajneeshees and the townspeople nearby, tensions that spilled over into violence, including arson and biological attacks. In the full telling of the story, the facts around Sheela’s actions become clear. It’s a complex, provocative portrait and, depending on your sympathies, Sheela herself becomes an incredibly compelling—or revolting—character. Either way, she’s one of the most fearless women I’ve seen anywhere—an incendiary speaker whose personal conviction and willpower are frankly terrifying. One of the series’ strengths is in its abundance of original footage, with screen time given to television appearances Sheela made throughout the eighties. Whether rebuking an interviewer, issuing a scathing indictment, or entering a court in cuffs, her presence is indomitable. Just as unsettling is her smile: radiant, mocking, cocksure. Depending on your perspective, it is either the telltale sign of a criminal mastermind, or the unbridled power of someone—a very rare someone—who has masterfully weaponized the truth. An article this week on Indiewire called her
a character you occasionally hate yourself for hating. What I hate more is that I didn’t know her sooner.