'The Venerable W' ('Le Venerable W'): Film Review | Cannes 2017

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Holy terror.

Director Barbet Schroeder ('Barfly,' 'Terror’s Advocate') documents the controversial Buddhist leader of a deadly anti-Muslim campaign in Myanmar.

Those who believe that all Buddhists respect their religion's core principles of peace and tolerance should take a look at The Venerable W (Le Venerable W), director Barbet Schroeder’s eye-opening chronicle of one Burmese monk’s long campaign of racism and violence against his country’s minority Muslim population.

The third part in a “trilogy of evil” that began in 1974 with General Idi Amin Dada and continued in 2007 with a look at the controversial French lawyer Jacques Verges in Terror’s Advocate, this scathing portrait gets up close and personal with Ashin Wirathu, the self-appointed spiritual leader of Myanmar’s anti-Muslim crusade.

Speaking openly to the camera, Wirathu propagates xenophobia and bigotry against a group that represents only a fraction of the local population, yet have been subject to decades of persecution by both the monk's followers and the military-controlled Burmese government. The result has been hundreds of deaths, thousands of homes burned to the ground and tens of thousands of Muslims displaced — all of it in the name of a religion that asks, according to one translation of the Metta Sutta, to “cultivate boundless love to all that live in the whole universe.”

The Venerable W, which consists of interviews with Wirathu and some of his most outspoken critics, as well as footage of riots, beatings, burnings and killings that have taken place since the 1970s, reveals that the 75-year-old Schroeder is still a fearless explorer of the darkest facets of our society. At a time when Islamophobia is on the rise in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere, his film is a reminder that even the most peaceful of religious doctrines can, if twisted in the wrong way, be used as a veritable source of evil. A premiere in Cannes should give this vital documentary the attention it deserves.

Wirathu operates out of the city of Mandalay, a third of whose inhabitants consist of monks or monks-in-training. In the late 90s he formed the “969” movement and began delivering racist sermons to his disciples, referring to Muslims as “kalars” (the equivalent of the n-word) and claiming they are a subspecies who don’t deserve Myanmar citizenship, that their businesses should be boycotted and that they should be banned from intermarriage with Buddhists.

Although prejudice against the Rohingya Muslim community, which is based in the western part of Myanmar bordering Bangladesh, dates back to before Wirathu’s time, he has helped accelerate a campaign resulting in many, many deaths and the mass destruction of property. In order to fuel the fire, he often highlights incidents where Muslims have attacked Buddhists (in one case, the rape and murder of a woman), distributing propaganda videos on DVD and backing riots where Rohingyas are driven from their homes while the armed forces stand idly by.

What’s especially disturbing about Schroeder’s inquiry is how, on one hand, Wirathu can be seen expounding the peaceful tenets of Buddhism to his followers, while on the other he preaches a holy war meant to ostracize — and indirectly, destroy — an entire segment of the population. The man himself sees no contradiction in the two, simply believing that Muslims are a lesser race unworthy of the basic human rights accorded to Buddhists.

While the situation in Myanmar is particularly extreme, Schroeder reveals at one point how, even in a Western nation like France, the perception of Islam’s grip on society versus the reality of that grip is highly exaggerated. Terrorist attacks like those that occurred in Paris in 2015 only help to augment fears and nationalistic tendencies, which is why a candidate like Marine Le Pen was able to capture more than a third of the vote in France’s recent presidential runoff.

The Burmese authorities have made some attempts to quell the tide of Islamophobic sentiment, banning the “969” group and jailing Wirathu for several years. But after his release, the popular monk managed to form a new movement, promoting a series of “protection of race and religion bills” that seem to be the first step toward a modern version of the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany. One of those laws has already been enacted, while the government continues to persecute the Rohingyas throughout the land.

Like in his portraits of Verges and Idi Amin, Schroeder has an unflinching way of capturing the propos and rationale of Wirathu without any filter whatsoever. Ace editor Nelly Quettier (Holy Motors) juxtaposes the lengthy one-on-one interview with found footage of devastated villages and grisly beatings, revealing how Wirathu’s teachings resonate through the widespread violence that has afflicted Myanmar for several decades now, and that will likely continue in the near future. In a place where Buddhists currently represent more than 90 percent of the populace, it’s unthinkable how a religion that preaches so much love can, in this case, yield so much hate.

Production companies: Les Films du Losange, Bande a Part Films
Director: Barbet Schroeder
Producer: Margaret Menegoz
Director of photography: Victoria Clay Mendoza
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Composer: Jorge Arriagada
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Sales: Les Films du Losange

In French, Burmese, Rohingya, Spanish
107 minutes

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