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Cannes Film Review: ‘The Venerable W.’

Variety logo Variety 5/20/2017 Jay Weissberg
© Provided by Variety

“Evil” is one of those tricky words usually best avoided, since its quasi-mythological sense of moral absolutism tends to downplay the human agency involved. Yet as Barbet Schroeder well knows, there are times when no other term properly conveys the insidious nature of intolerance and carnage robed in the trappings of power. Following his 1974 documentary “General Idi Amin Dada” and 2007’s “Terror’s Advocate,” the veteran director completes his self-styled Trilogy of Evil with “The Venerable W.,” a deeply disturbing look at Burmese Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, whose abhorrent Islamophobic rhetoric has been at the forefront of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya minority and other Muslims. The fact that Burmese atrocities continue to make the news (though not often enough) should help to secure festival and art-house play.

In some ways “Venerable W.” is closer to “Idi Amin” than “Terror’s Advocate,” since Wirathu, like Amin at the time of filming, still wreaks havoc in his home country (“Terror” subject Jacques Vergès was alive when Schroeder released the documentary, but most of the prominent legal cases he handled occurred in the past). The biggest difference between the three is that Schroeder had access to considerably more third-party footage, thanks in part to cell phones and You Tube. He still relies on the expected talking heads, but supplements that with plenty of chilling amateur video chronicling the impact of Wirathu’s noxious campaign to “purify” his country.

Who is Wirathu? A prominent monk who began spouting anti-Muslim propaganda in the 1990s. Such views aren’t new: The Rohingya represent approximately 4% of the population and yet have been targeted for centuries. Schroeder only briefly touches on the past, most specifically the mass population shifts in 1978, instead looking for the seeds of Wirathu’s intolerance. What’s especially troubling for the director is that the monk’s dehumanizing sermons seem to run counter to everything we associate with Buddhism, the religion of peace and enlightenment. Yet Wirathu’s Buddhism is a nationalist, racist and bloodthirsty ideology, leading to Time magazine placing him on their July 1, 2013 cover with the headline, “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”

In classic populist style, Wirathu stokes fears of racial infiltration, utilizing language usually reserved for animals to describe how Muslims are over-breeding and destroying the purity of Burmese bloodlines while taking over land and businesses. He also proclaims that the Rohingya are an invented minority with no legitimate right to Burmese citizenship. It’s all dangerous claptrap, imitating the lying propaganda that always accompanies genocide, yet when it comes from the mouth of a Buddhist monk, in a land where monks are revered, the hateful message readily finds mass acceptance.

Complicating matters is Myanmar’s political history and the military junta’s uneasy relationship with the religious community. When monks staged the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” and three years later Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, the world assumed the country was heading in a more benign direction. Yet the terrorizing of the Rohingya community, passively watched by an army clearly told not to intervene, doesn’t jive with the image of either Buddhism or Suu Kyi. Perhaps the latter conundrum is too complex even for Schroeder, who mentions her abandonment of the Muslims without trying to explain how it is this supposed advocate for peace and democracy continues to deny that state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing is occurring, despite ample evidence.

Though Schroeder traces Wirathu’s Islamophobia to the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman in his hometown of Kyaukse, clearly the monk would have come to his hate-filled agenda without such a trigger. In interviews he comes across as calm and reasonable, adept at “alternate facts” (he even expresses enthusiasm for Trump’s presidency), but footage of him addressing his acolytes reveals a far more impassioned and bombastic figure, clearly in love with his power.

Schroeder also interviews monks who firmly disagree with Wirathu’s message of intolerance, as well as journalists Matthew Smith and Carlos Sardiña Galache, who’ve done much to draw the world’s attention to the ethnic cleansing. Oddly, only one member of the Rohingya community, Abdul Rasheed, is featured.

Sensitive viewers will find it difficult to watch some of the amateur footage, which doesn’t shy away from showing beatings, murders and burning bodies. Bulle Ogier provides the overly fey, breathless “Small Buddhist voice,” meant to speak for the religion’s better conscience. Music, as in “Terror’s Advocate,” is sparingly used but even then generally feels unnecessary.

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