Searching for Sheela
Unanswered questions in docu about '80s cult leader.
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Searching for Sheela
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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Searching for Sheela is a documentary about a controversial figure, Ma Anand Sheela, who was accused of attempted murder in the 1980s when she was affiliated with the commune of famed Indian cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Sheela denies any wrongdoing, although the record shows she pleaded guilty and served 39 months of a 20-year sentence. The filmmaker makes no attempt to question her false pronouncements, nor does he explain the complex circumstances of her past life in any detail, making this a frustrating exercise in non-critical publicity rather than documentary. Teens who are interested should be advised to proceed with skepticism. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "t-tties," "damn," "prostitute," "pimps," "up yours," and "penis." Someone gives the middle finger gesture. An old news clip flashes a brief view from the back of naked dancers. "Free love" is mentioned but not defined.
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What's the Story?
SEARCHING FOR SHEELA looks at Ma Anand Sheela, influential spokeswoman and manager of the 1980s Oregon "utopian" community that merged eastern religion, individual devotion, and "free love" under the leadership of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. As described in the six-part 2018 Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, adherents gave up their lives, money and families to join. Sheela -- who claims she had no interest in spirituality but only served Rajneesh because they loved each other (platonically) -- was arrested by federal authorities for attempted murder, bioterrorism, and other charges. Now 70 and running a home for the disabled in Switzerland, she maintains a fierce defense of her actions. During her first visit to her native India in 35 years, local reporters demonstrate a lasting obsession with Sheela's controversial past. In series of interviews, Sheela defends her actions, denies wrongdoing, and frequently refers to herself in the third person, as "Sheela." On arrival, she's catered to by a fashion designer who provides a wardrobe for her return tour. The rich celebrate her at events. She's charming and clever, as well as vague and slippery when pressed about her past behaviors, as if the accusations were both false and minor. However, the charges included training thousands of homeless people to vote in county elections against restrictions on the cult. She also allegedly contaminated 10 local salad bars with salmonella to lower citizen voter turnout, sickening 751 people. (This has been deemed the largest domestic bioterror attack ever.) Director Shakun Batra never asks outright if Sheela committed the crimes, nor does anyone question her denials about pleading guilty, denials the court record clearly contradicts. Even Rajneesh himself denounced Sheela, but she dismisses his statements, claiming he was under the influence of depressive medication.
Is It Any Good?
While the subject is fascinating, Searching for Sheela is a problematic film, likely to give a bad name to journalism as it ignores every journalistic standard for even-handedness. Sheela would be a rich subject for a filmmaker willing to showcase and admire her charisma and intelligence as long as it also questioned her false and self serving pronouncements. Director Batra owes the audience more than Sheela's aggressive self defense, especially in the face of some irrefutable facts. Clips from decades past document Sheela as a combative, aggressive defender of the cult and her actions. She packs a pistol. She gives the finger. In a threatening tone, she promises to defend herself mightily if attacked. Batra never counters Sheela's false claims that she did not plead guilty, leaving viewers with a rosy picture of a woman wronged. Sheela proudly confesses she has not and never will seek "redemption" because she lacks the sense of guilt and shame necessary to motivate such a quest. "I have nothing to redeem myself from," she insists.
In the end, this doting film does its subject no good, making her instead seem suspicious and incredible. In this so-called "search" for Sheela, no searching is even attempted. The ultimate, unwitting, message is beware of people who refer to themselves in the third person.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about what, if any, obligations a documentary filmmaker has when presenting a controversial story. Whose version of events does this film tell?
Sheela says she didn't plead guilty but a quick internet search contradicts the claim. How does this affect her credibility? Do you think the filmmaker should've confronted her? Do you trust the film's point of view?
Ignoring her actions of the past, how does Sheela come across? How does her current work caring for the disabled affect our view of her?
- On DVD or streaming: April 22, 2021
- Director: Shakun Batra
- Studio: Netflix
- Genre: Documentary
- Run time: 58 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: February 17, 2023
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