Barbet Schoeder’s The Venerable W., which premiered at the 2017 Cannes International Film Festival in May, is the final installment in what the 76-year-old Iranian-Swiss director has come to refer to as his nonfiction “trilogy of evil.”
Ashin Wirathu, a Burmese Buddhist monk and anti-Muslim hate-monger, wasn’t well-known outside of South Asia until July 2013, when TIME put him on the cover as the “face of Buddhist terror” and dubbed him the “Buddhist Bin Laden” for giving dharma talks that promote violence against the country’s Muslims. This study of Wirathu is a better and more resonant film than its predecessors, General Idi Amin Dada, about the eponymous Ugandan dictator, and Terror’s Advocate, about the infamous Jacques Vergès, legal defender of Klaus Barbie and Carlos the Jackal, among others. Schroeder’s film may be a documentary, but with Wirathu, he has given us one of the richest and most troubling “characters” in recent cinema.
Schroeder’s method is not unlike the one employed by director Errol Morris with his films about Robert McNamara (The Fog of War) and Donald Rumsfeld (The Unknown Known). Both filmmakers gain access to subjects by promising to allow them to speak freely (and perhaps inflating their egos), and remain as nonjudgmental and nonconfrontational as possible during the on-camera interview process in hopes that the subject will reveal his or her own contradictions, hypocrisies, and pathologies. This strategy yields varying results, but in this case Wirathu has inadvertently given Schroeder exactly what he traveled to Mandalay for: an unsettling self-portrait.
Schroeder has enjoyed a singular career in movies of all shapes and sizes, as a producer (he was one of the forces behind the French New Wave), a director of narrative films (from More to Barfly to Reversal of Fortune to the 12th episode of season 3 of Mad Men), an occasional actor, and a documentarian. He has always operated with a freedom that is rare in the world of cinema. The Venerable W. had an interesting point of departure. As Schroeder explains in Où en êtes–vous, Barbet Schroeder?, a short film he made for the French television channel Arté to accompany The Venerable W., the hatred that arose in him in reaction to the thoughtless removal of beloved trees on his property by a neighbor brought him back to the teachings of the Buddha. That in turn brought him to the discovery of the violence being perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, impelling him to return with a film crew to the Theravada Buddhist country he had first visited in his 20s.
“By a twist of fate, while trying to get rid of my hate,” says Schroeder over images of a Rohingya neighborhood burning to ashes, “I discovered undisguised racial hatred.” And then, over images of the remaining tree stumps: “I hope it cured me. I’m not sure yet.” Typically for this adventurous filmmaker, he entered Myanmar without informing the military authority of his intentions.
The Venerable W. provides the viewer with a measure of historical grounding by means of interviews with foreign and local reporters, including investigative magazine editor Kyaw Zayar Htun; Matthew Smith from Fortify Rights; Spanish freelancer Carlos Sardiña Galache; the Rohingya political activist Abdul Rasheed; and Buddhist monks with varying degrees of alliance and discord with Wirathu, including Saffron Revolution leader U Kaylar Sa. There is also an excerpt from a French public television report shot at the time of the Burmese government’s Operation Nagamin (Dragon King) in 1977–78, during which countless Rohingya were harassed, brutalized, raped, and slaughtered, and more than 200,000 were forced out of the country and into Bangladesh, a country as ill-equipped to receive them then as it is today.
As it always is with ethnic cleansings and genocides, the history of the conflict stretches far into the past. Muslim traders settled in the ancient Arakan (now Rakhine) kingdom of Mrauk-U more than 1200 years ago and were integrated within its cultural and political life for centuries. The absorption of Arakan into the Burman kingdom in the late 18th century prompted the first mass exodus of Rohingya into India. They returned a century later when British rulers classified Burma as an Indian province. The British government’s retraction of a promise to create a protected Muslim state in Rakhine after the Indian Independence Act of 1947 laid the foundation for the multiple uprisings and pogroms that began after the war and have erupted at semi-regular intervals ever since. In 1954, 1962, 1977-78, 1992, and 2003, there were successive waves of violence against the Rohingya, one of many Muslim minorities in Myanmar (though they are officially classified as illegal aliens by the government, which refers to them as “Bengalis”). The latest wave of violence and mass expulsion is, of course, still under way, by turns officially denied, minimized and justified as a response to an insurgency led by the the Arakhan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Since August, 620,000 Rohingya and counting have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh, and into a horror of another kind. Regular rounds of official rhetoric from governments across the world are duly fired off while countless human lives are being damaged or extinguished. As Penny Green, director of the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London, told the Los Angeles Times, Wirathu plays “a central role with his hate speech and the Islamophobia that it creates, given that the Rohingya are surrounded by a hostile community that can be whipped into violence very quickly.”
What makes the situation particularly heartbreaking for many around the world is that the flames of hatred are regularly fanned by Buddhist monks and allowed to spread by Aung San Suu Kyi, the political leader of Myanmar who is now in league with the very military powers she stood against during her years of house arrest. To say the least, the situation has proven to be problematic for the international Buddhist community, particularly here in the West.
You will not learn many of the above facts about the Rohingya in The Venerable W. To enumerate the elements lacking in a given film, a tactic employed by Gavin Jacobson in his piece on The Venerable W. for The New York Review of Books, simultaneously implies an idea of what that film should be (in this case, a perfect delivery system of historical perspective, magically self-updating fact, and visual and behavioral interest) and presents a skewed version of what the film actually is. I’m reminded of a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man back in the nineties, after which an audience member took the writer and director to task for not teaching us more about the history of Native Americans. “I’m not an educator,” said Jarmusch, “I’m a filmmaker. If you want to know more about the Native Americans, do what I did and learn about them.”
It seems to me that The Venerable W. is a very personal lament from a man in a state of shock that his beloved Theravada Buddhism is being co-opted as a delivery system for racial hatred and genocide. Schroeder’s film has an unusual purity and simplicity of purpose. The types of materials from which this documentary is composed are minimal. In addition to the aforementioned interviews and news excerpts, there are the occasional photographs, maps that orient us to Myanmar’s geography, and an animation explaining the numerological origins of Wirathu’s “969 Movement” (that symbolizes the three gems or virtues and intended by Wirathu to combat the number 768, commonly used in South Asia to signify Muslim businesses and families). There are also excerpts from Wirathu’s homemade DVD and Facebook productions and passages from pro-969 songs like “Song to Whip Up Religious Blood.”
But the heart of the film lies in the cross-cutting between Wirathu, whether he’s speaking directly to Schroeder’s camera, delivering sermons, or driving in motorcades to trouble spots; his followers, sitting cross-legged or on folding chairs in stadiums, meeting halls, or at makeshift rallying points; and the monks, old and young, out on the streets or in his Mandalay monastery, Ma Soe Yein Nu Kyaung. Schroeder and his cinematographer Victoria Clay-Mendoza compose the majority of the images of the younger monks studying, meditating, and washing with great care, often slowing the movement and perhaps stabilizing the images, adjusting the color and the light balance so that their faces and torsos glow with energy and potentiality. And these images, pure expressions of intense love for the forms and ceremonies and moods of South Asian Buddhism, are counterpointed with the presence of Wirathu himself, in whom Schroeder sees a manifestation of pure evil. The source of the film’s reverberant intensity can be found in the friction produced by a constant pivoting between these three elements: leader, potential disciples, blind followers. The tone is one of quiet alarm, rekindled with every new word and gesture from this hate-monger in the guise of a spiritual leader.
Wirathu is a fascinating figure. At 49, he looks younger than the boys walking through the halls of the monastery. At this moment in his life, he has an absolutely symmetrical baby face, highlighted by an upper lip that makes a perfectly formed “M.” When he speaks, Wirathu is rarely less than peaceful and composed, and the slicing gestures he makes with his right hand in conversation are never overemphatic or out of balance with his precise wording—indeed, he would seem to present the very model of “right speech” and “right behavior.” He also frequently finishes his sentences with small nods of agreement with himself and quietly satisfied mmm sounds, habitual manifestations of his particular form of delusion.
The exchanges between Wirathu and his listeners and devotees, like many other South Asian sermons readily available on the Internet, are call and response in form, extensions of the rote learning practices embedded in the Burmese educational system with little at all to do with the actual teachings of the Buddha. Schroeder films what appears to be a typical sermon, in which Wirathu describes what he refers to as the Muslims’ alleged “sex strategy” for hiring young Buddhist girls, showering them with gifts, marrying them, and thus polluting the Burmese race and state religion.
“Does it work?” asks Wirathu. “Yes, it does,” responds the crowd in singsong unison. “If we let them do so on the pretext of human rights, won’t our race be destroyed?” “Yes, it will.” “And our religion?” “Our religion too.”
What is notable in Wirathu’s sermons, in keeping with the ultranationalist anti-Rohingya message, is the rhythm of the exchanges: the calls and the responses flow together in a river of self-affirmation. What we are seeing is someone whose every pronouncement must be affirmed by either inner or outer voices: indeed, the two seem interchangeable. As is the case with the United States’ current president (for whom Wirathu professes admiration), one has the impression of someone who has zeroed in on the most emotionally fraught and incendiary conflicts within reach, simply because their invocation and intensification will always yield the most immediately satisfying results.
There’s something touching and a little childlike about Schroeder’s astonishment that even the dharma can be perverted in the name of nationalism, hatred, violence, and mass murder. Anything can be perverted. But he has taken that childlike astonishment and used it to create something impressive and valuable: an object of contemplation built around a human being who embodies delusion in its purest and most destructive form.