FREMANTLE cult or progressive commune?
That’s the intriguing question explored in the documentary Beloved, an epic autopsy of the Rajneesh sannyasin movement in 1980s Fremantle, as told by those who lived through it.
Members of the sannyasin commune, the so-called “Orange People”, surrendered themselves to the spiritual guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, with acolytes promised enlightenment and revolution but required to live by unorthodox social structures and identities.
The doco was made by Fremantle local Joseph London, whose childhood friends’ parents were disciples.
He says it’s unlikely Freo will ever see anything like the sannyasin phenomenon again.
“I don’t think the Fremantle of that time will be repeated because it has been discovered and developed now and it is widely viewed as a desirable place to live and to visit as a tourist, which it wasn’t seen as back then [1980s]” London says.
“The sannyasin movement itself was so distinctive in its visibility and vibrancy, its public theatrics and, at stages, its provocations,” London says.
“The movement also had a particular blend of spirituality and capitalism and attracted many people who had wealth.
“Even in the cheap, run-down Fremantle of 1981, the group needed a money injection from a single sannyasin donor to set up the ashram and commune here.
“It’s also worth remembering that the sannyasins were themselves part of Fremantle’s gentrification process which really got going in the 80’s.
“They built and fixed up properties around Fremantle (Old Shanghai, Norfolk Hotel as examples) and sometimes bought properties, fixed them up and sold them off themselves.
“But it is true that buying or even leasing a building in the centre of Fremantle these days would be
a much bigger ask for a start-up community like the sannyasins were in 1981.”
The doco is more than four hours long and London says he was amazed by the scale of the story while making it.
“…what surprised me the most perhaps, was my feeling that the whole history and experience of the sannyasin movement here was still being processed by the group,” he says.
“They copped a big public backlash in their time and there was some wariness about having their story aired. There were memories that remained confusing or painful or even traumatic, despite the love and devotion many of the people I spoke to still have for their spiritual master and his movement.”
A special encore screening of Beloved, with an introduction by London, is showing at Luna on SX in Fremantle tomorrow (Sunday April 10) at 11am. Tix at lunapalace.com.au.