In my family, Milt Ritter has always been something of a folk hero. He and his wife Chris — my sister’s godparents — are hippies who never burnt out. Instead, they always seemed skillfully adept at navigating the trappings of capitalism without forgetting their humanistic, “kindness first” belief system. Chris taught grade school with my mom in Canby, Oregon, while Milt was a cameraman for KGW, Portland’s NBC affiliate.
When the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers arrived in Wasco County, Oregon, Milt was dispatched by the station to get footage of the goings-on at the commune. Over the course of the next four years, he and other staffers at the station spent extensive time on Rajneeshpuram and became quite friendly with Ma Anand Sheela — the wildly controversial secretary to the Bhagwan. Eventually, Milt’s footage from the commune was archived by the Oregon Historical Society and was used heavily by directors Chaplain and Maclain Way for the popular Netflix documentary series Wild, Wild Country.
With the show currently sparking so much conversation and controversy, I spoke with Milt about his thoughts on his time at the ranch/commune, his memories of the Bhagwan, and everyone’s favorite topic: the razor-tongued Ma Anand Sheela.
It’s wild to watch the documentary because I know so much of the footage is yours and it almost seems like they had B-roll for every single anecdote.
True enough. There were some moments that didn’t match up, but nobody would know except those of us who knew the place. It’s not often that you have this much footage. A lot of it from me, but I also think they got some footage from the Rajneeshees, because they were always filming everything. The place was documented like crazy. Local news stations, national networks… everyone was there.
How did you feel about Wild, Wild Country? You were interviewed heavily in the OPB doc on the subject, so I’d imagine you would have thoughts on how these new filmmakers executed it.
I think they did a pretty good job of telling the story. I certainly didn’t see anything grossly wrong with it. They leaned heavily on the work of Les Zaitz — the Oregonian investigative reporter who wrote the famous 20 part series on the ranch — and interviewed him in the doc. He takes a pretty harsh view of Bhagwan with regards to what he knew and didn’t know.
I tend to be a little softer on him. I believe that he didn’t know what Sheela was doing. I think he knew some stuff and probably encouraged her to do some stuff but didn’t realize to what extent she was breaking the law to do it. I really got the sense that he didn’t know that things had gotten out of control until the very end, whereas Les Zaitz really thinks that Bhagwan was having Sheela do these things for him. And of course, nobody really knows at this point.