Our True Crime Series continues with charismatic leaders, the allure of a new and welcoming society and their inevitable decay and corruption. Cults, communes and other alternative communities hold a unique allure, to both its seeking entrants and bewildered outsiders. Their rituals and overall promise of an alternative to our society at large are universally intriguing. So when that promise is corrupted, the consequences that ensue are often violent and destroy many lives.
Wild Wild Country
The name of this six-part Netflix docu-series already indicates the shrewdness and reckless abandon at which the Rajneeshpuram community tried to create their own society in the middle of nowhere, USA during the 80s. Like its era, the cult was a wild mix of capitalism, self-discovery, new age-y rituals and egotism.
The guru, Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh, embodied these ideals by trying to consolidate capitalist greed with surface-level meditative and introspective techniques and teachings. Naturally, the average affluent, disillusioned white American liked what he was offering. So when the Rajneeshpuram bought a huge plot of land somewhere in Oregon and attempted to create a new society from and around the wealth and resources of self-searching suburbanites, self-described spiritual US citizens came in droves.
Soon, the cult had erected enough buildings and created enough infrastructure to sustain several thousand followers in their commune.
After just three years of owning the land, the Rajneeshpuram were able to host up to 7000 people with all the amenities of a small town. However, the gumption and fervor necessary to accomplish such an incredible feat was not supplied by the vain, greedy but docile grifter-guru Baghwan. As is often the case, behind the scenes there was another leader who shrewdly put their followers to work and knew no boundaries in reaching their goals.
Ma Anand Sheela shines throughout the series as the true antihero of this rise and fall tale.
Her descent into ever more drastic and illegal measures to maintain the many moving parts of the Rajneeshpuram’s huge operation are examined in critical detail. And in a once in a lifetime opportunity, the filmmakers got Sheela as an interview partner to confront her about all the crimes and misdemeanors that she spearheaded during her four years of reign, creating a full society out of nothing. It is both astonishing and terrifying how clear and yet unremorseful her account of the events are. A unique look into the mind of someone we usually do not get to examine up close.
The tragic story of Holy Hell begins in 1985, when film enthusiast and director of the documentary itself, Will Allen, joins the New Age group Buddhafield. Similar to many communes and self-discovery groups, the Buddhafield encouraged introspection and self-growth and held great promise for its searching disciples.
It is also run from the top down by an elusive and eccentric hypnotherapist and all-around odd person calling himself Michel or simply the master. Michel’s worldview incorporates enticing aspects of Buddhism and New Age spiritualism. It also enforces oddly restrictive, controlling rules like universal celibacy and regular hypnotherapy sessions conducted by him. In these session, the true motives of the cult leader are revealed.
Guru Michel is a serial abuser and coerces the cult’s young, attractive, male members through his hypnotherapy techniques into having sex with him on a regular basis, using his hypnotherapy expertise to obfuscate his abuse and keep his flock under control.
Holy Hell is unique in its access to footage of the cult, since its director was their videographer, director and, in effect, propaganda minister for over two decades. Not only does he make the brave decision to share his own story of surviving abuse but he also empowers other victims by creating this definitive account of their shared trauma and indictment of the man at its centre.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
One of the most famous and influential cults of our time, the endlessly fascinating and cruel Scientology finally received the Alex Gibney treatment in 2015. Alex Gibney, considered by many to be the most important and prolific feature documentarian of our time, has a talent for presenting complex subject matters in a clear and universally accessible tone and manner. His documentaries may not always break the mold or reinvent the genre but they always present well-researched and digestible information on topics that the zeitgeist yearns to have explored.
He also works through the structure of the church in detail to show just how dangerous, powerful and cunning their organization is. From the early beginnings under L. Ron Hubbard’s own leadership to the now worldwide conglomerate of immense wealth and influence, led by David Miscavige, whose wife’s disappearance is just another alarming facet to his reign.
Going Clear is a great account of one of the biggest, most ruthless cults operating today.
In our next installment, we will start our deep dive into the new, genre-defining documentary series I’ll Be Gone In The Dark. The series traces the decade-spanning case of the Golden State Killer and the unlikely role of a true crime blogger and citizen detective in his recent capture.