Ma Anand Sheela, one of the main subjects of the Netflix docuseries “Wild Wild Country,” has become a breakout star of sorts, tearing the internet apart with debates regarding whether the former spokesperson of the Rajneesh cult should be celebrated or scorned.
Over the course of six episodes, the documentary explores how Sheela, secretary to religious guru Bhagwan Rajneesh, and her group founded a commune in rural Oregon in the ’80s named Rajneeshpuram, which quickly led to a battle with the local townspeople. Sheela goes from confidently flashing middle fingers at her critics to eventually landing in jail, convicted of attempted murder, and gives her take on the events 30 years later.
On Tuesday, Sheela joined a panel for Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country” FYSee event via video from her home in Switzerland, where she discussed the documentary and her time leading the cult, alongside directors Chapman and Maclain Way and executive producer Mark Duplass.
“I’m getting a lot of extra work now and the peace of my life has been disturbed,” she said of the documentary’s impact since its March release. “I have been getting lots of positive responses, people feel with my conviction, with my readiness to protect the community and Bhagwan.”
Sheela added that although she didn’t know what the Way brothers would do with the material after she sat for almost 35 hours of recorded interviews, she felt an obligation to share her story. “It was a beautiful life I have lived. It is a life that I have learned a great deal and this experience that I have had was one in a million,” she said. “There is nothing that I can say that would stop me from talking. For me, it is a life-enriching experience and one should not hide such experiences or be afraid to talk about it.”
Duplass questioned if Sheela knew what a large pop culture figure she had become, spawning plenty of memes and social media hashtags. “It’s really fascinating to me because I would say 99 out of 100 posts are from a lot of young women who say ‘Sheela’s a badass’ (or) ‘I love Sheela’ and one person will come out and (write), ‘Yes, but she did all of these horrible things’ and then another 99 people will come out and lambast that person who said that thing about you,” he said.
She replied, “No, I didn’t know how the world is taking it, but I’m happy that through me the attention to females has been given, through me it is again becoming important not to discriminate against gender or the color or the religion. From that point of view, I’m very happy about it, and I have nothing to regret.”
Elsewhere during the panel, Duplass discussed diving into the documentary filmmaking world after being a longtime fan, largely because he and his brother, Jay Duplass, “see a lot of ourselves” in the Way brothers. The two were given more than 300 hours of footage, mostly recorded by local news stations, on the turmoil surrounding Rajneeshpuram, and dropped another project they were working on to pursue the series.
Chapman credited Sheela with being the main reason why they created the series, saying, “We started seeing Sheela in the footage and to be honest, she’s such a powerful, strong-willed character. She speaks her mind and it felt like she had a story to tell and hadn’t really been given the opportunity to explain what happened in eastern Oregon through her lens.”
Maclain added, “To be totally honest, the idea of telling the story of Rajneeshpuram without Sheela was totally incomprehensible to me. It was almost like if she wasn’t going to do it, then we weren’t going to do the series. Besides Bhagwan, who’s no longer with us, Sheela to me seemed to be the most essential voice to capture.”
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