It was a good two or three years ago when we first started thinking about doing an Oregon Experience documentary about Indian spiritual master Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his disciples. They first came to Oregon in the summer of 1981 with plans to build a utopian community in remote Central Oregon. Conflicts between the sannyasins, as they called themselves, and the other local residents flared immediately and escalated to a dramatic conclusion 4 1/2 years later.
Reporters and videographers from Portland — and around the world — covered the ever-changing and unsettling story. We knew a lot of footage had been shot during this time, but most news organizations didn't save raw footage.
"Early on there was a decision made in the newsroom that this was not an ordinary story," says former KGW news videographer Milt Ritter. "There was a decision made to keep all the field tapes — rather than reuse them [to record] other stories as we normally did. By the end, we had 500-600 tapes of the Rajneesh experience."
At the time most newsrooms used magnetic 3/4" tape – and all that tape took up a lot of space. "We hung onto them for a number of years, but then the station was sold and new management decided the best place for the tapes was the dumpster," recalls Ritter.
To make a long story short, the tapes were eventually donated to the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) instead. But there was another problem emerging. Over time, some magnetic tape can deteriorate and develop a kind of sticky, shedding syndrome. If you try and use the tape in this condition, it can disintegrate and damage your playback machine as well.
There is a potential solution. You literally pop the tape in a controlled oven (don't try this at home) and "bake it" at approximately 130 degrees for about eight hours. The process can stabilize the tape, temporarily, so it can be transferred to another format.
If we were going to produce a documentary about Rajneeshpuram, we knew we'd need those rescued tapes — now nearly 30 years old. Working with OHS Film Archivist Michele Kribs, Library Director Geoff Wexler and many other folks, we applied for and received a grant from the Oregon Heritage Commission to preserve and transfer about 200 of the aging tapes to a newer digital format. And yes, some of them were baked. Once that was done, we were in business! (Check out the video above to see a short clip of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his disciples from one of the preserved tapes.)
The tapes provide an incredible library of day-to-day life at the commune and the events that unfolded from 1981 to 1986. You'll see a great deal of this footage — and much more — in the upcoming Oregon Experience documentary "Rajneeshpuram" co-produced by Eric Cain and myself and edited by Lisa Suinn Kallem.
Happily, the preserved tapes will be archived at OHS for historians, documentary producers and all interested parties for generations to come.
Tune in on Monday, November 19 at 8 p.m. to watch Oregon Experience: "Rajneeshpuram."