Dir: Barbet Schroeder | Impact | VIFF Impact | France/Switzerland | 2017 | 100 mins
Friday, Oct. 6, 6:15 p.m. | International Village 8
Most of the media I’ve consumed that dealt with genocidal violence had the benefit of covering events from the past. Not always well into the past, but at least distant enough that they could be processed as a kind of historical lesson. Not so with The Venerable W. Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing is ongoing, and Ashin Wirathu, the subject of the film, is peddling his hate in real time.
In the third entry of his Axis of Evil trilogy, director Barbet Schroeder observes the Burmese monk who’s become the face of the genocide which has killed or displaced over 400,000 Rohingya Muslims. The opening credits show Wirathu peacefully meditating against a backdrop of water and rustling leaves, the very picture of Buddhist serenity. His appearance is disarming: a round-cheeked, gentle-faced man with a solemn air and an inviting smile. And then he opens his mouth.
“The features of the African catfish,” Wirathu says, in his smooth, pleasant voice, “are that they grow very fast, they breed very fast, and they’re violent.”
What wisdom does he have to impart about the catfish? Well.
“The Muslims are exactly like these fish.”
The contrast between the teachings of Buddhist religion and Wirathu and his followers’ execution of it is at the heart of The Venerable W. The documentary highlights the disparity by overlaying lines from the Metta Sutta over its scenes of carnage. This Buddhist sutra was chanted during Myanmar’s peaceful Saffron Revolution in order to call for compassion, back in 2007. Wirathu claims he spearheaded the Saffron Revolution from prison. But then, Wirathu claims a lot of things.
The first half of the film traces the infamous monk’s rise to prominence, from backwater provincial to the leader of Ma Ba Tha, AKA the “Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion.” Much of the film is composed of interviews with the man himself, which often make for uncomfortable viewing. Schroeder chooses not to interact directly with any of his interviewees on camera, so Wirathu prattles on uninterrupted, weaving a narrative in which he’s the brave defender of a disappearing race who was jailed by the government for speaking the truth. Schroeder gives the editing just enough of a spin to shed light on Wirathu’s hypocrisy without moralizing. The monk’s rhetoric is the same as pro-genocidal rhetoric has always been: Muslims are taking and raping women, destroying pure Burmese bloodlines with intermarriage, and controlling the state through money.
It’s a relief when the director eventually introduces moderate Buddhist voices to contradict Wirathu’s blithe Islamophobia, along with journalists who have covered the unfolding events. Anti-Muslim violence existed in Myanmar long before Wirathu’s “enlightenment” on the matter in the 1990s, but his incitement of the populace organized the masses like never before. Schroeder uses visceral, grainy footage captured by amateurs to show the extent of the ensuing devastation. The camera flicks between brutal beatings and piles of burned Muslim bodies, heaped amidst the charred wreckage of their homes.
In one particularly chilling scene, Wirathu drives to a site of recent communal violence, urging the people there to help his fellow monks calm the riots down. Schroeder immediately cuts to footage of a Muslim being chased through a nearby field. The figure stumbles, bent over in pain. The pursuers follow leisurely, beating their victim with poles and sticks. Finally, the figure crumples to a heap near the feet of an orange-robed monk. He looks down, coolly, and raises a club of his own. Later, Wirathu will explain: The Ma Ba Tha defuse violence by punishing the guilty.
The Venerable W. succeeds as an unsettling glimpse into a disturbed man’s mind, but the experience isn’t quite perfect. Part of me longed for access to more objective information. The filmmaker is overly reliant on talking heads, leaving viewers to guess at whether anything has been verified, or how. Other minor flaws, like the unnecessarily distracting horror-style music that played over certain scenes, could occasionally grate.
However, the stark necessity of telling this story sweeps away most objections. People are dying. The world is not always listening. Even with far clumsier presentation, the atrocities that are revealed in The Venerable W.‘s footage would make the movie vital viewing.
Those who wish to help Rohingya refugees can donate to the UNHCR here.