Barbet Schroeder’s overpoweringly bleak documentary about the Buddhist monk stirring up ethnic hate against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims is the third in what has now emerged as his “trilogy of evil” – a trio of disquieting documentaries of which the first two were General Idi Amin Dada in 1974 and Terror’s Advocate in 2007 about the genial, cigar-smoking Jacques Vergès, lawyer for Klaus Barbie.
The Venerable W delivers a nauseous, almost black-comic jab at any liberal who fondly believed that Buddhism and Buddhists somehow float ethereally free of the sectarianism and bigotry that infect any other religion. And it also emerges as a devastating indictment of someone who is not its subject and appears only briefly: Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader who is now increasingly resembling a passive-aggressive Eva Perón, or perhaps a Mother Teresa, but the way Christopher Hitchens considered her: as a self-important matriarch of nationalism.
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It is actually about Ashin Wirathu, an orange-clad Buddhist monk with a mass following, who despite a bland and almost torpid manner is a fanatical anti-Muslim activist, using social media and unceasing programmes of public speaking and DVD propaganda to stir up violent hate against the Rohingya Muslims – claiming that they are a Saudi-backed Bangladeshi insurgency whose purpose is to infiltrate the country, destroy Myanmar’s traditional Buddhism and establish a caliphate. At this monk’s instigation, Rohingyas have their villages burned and they are harassed, beaten and killed. Wirathu himself drops his quiet mannerisms at the end of the film, for a raucous speech calling the UN human rights envoy Yanghee Lee a “whore” and for an acid interview mocking Angela Merkel. Time magazine ran a cover story about Wirathu in 2013, but Schroeder’s movie gives a more substantial, and stomach-turningly intimate study of the man, even more relevant now that Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall from grace has focused attention on Myanmar’s sectarianism.
Schroeder’s film persuasively points out that Rohingya persecution is nothing new. The government’s Operation King Dragon carried out similar actions in the late 1970s: ostensibly a counter-insurgency, but more resembling a pogrom, fuelled by the conviction that the territory bordering Bangladesh is rich in mineral deposits. Beating up and killing the Muslim minority is a traditional risk-free way of reaffirming Myanmar’s embattled statehood. And the country’s Buddhist monks are a willing civilian militia.
There are gruesome images of violence in this film which reminded me of Josh Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), about the brutal mass slaughter in Indonesia, or perhaps Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts (2017) about Isis in Raqqa.
So is this film more evidence that we are reliving the 1930s? Actually, it put me in mind of the 1990s. This preposterously poisonous monk reminded me of the Belgian-born journalist and radio announcer Georges Ruggiu whose inflammatory broadcasts in Rwanda against the Tutsis were a very substantial cause of the massacres. Like Wirathu, there is the same touch of pure irrational malevolence, something that does not have a political or ideological explanation. Maybe it’s a clinical pathology. Nationalist fever could simply be a pretext for a bacchanal of violence. And of course there is the example of the Bosnian genocide: mass killings in the very midst of Europe, where “never again” had been a political mantra for four decades.
There is the same paranoia over territory and the same self-pitying overdog victimhood – beating up a smaller minority, and claiming that they are in fact the larger force, backed by foreigners. Wirathu even deploys an outrageous “false flag” claim: that Rohingyas are setting fire to their own villagers to get international support. Maybe Wirathu had studied the Serbs’ PR in the 1990s: they used to say that the Muslims were bombing their own positions in Sarajevo.
The Venerable W does not explicitly debate the existence of evil as such, but it certainly argues that nationalism, ignorance, arrogance, dogmatic religion and fear are its constituent elements. This is a sombre, pessimistic but necessary film.