“They live in our land.
They use our resources.
They have all the rights they want.
You think they’d be happy, right?”
It’s a speech that could be pulled from President* Donald Trump’s spite-spitting responses to the NFL players kneeling, or the Black Lives Matter protests, or even the survivors scraping by in hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico. But this is a speech from Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk who has become the face of violent anti-Muslim movement in Myanmar that’s resulting in genocide. This confounding figure is the focus of filmmaker Barbet Schroeder’s latest, The Venerable W., which plays as part of the New York Film Festival’s Spotlight on Documentary.
The Venerable W. is the final installment of Schroeder’s “Trilogy of Evil,” which includes his 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait, which centered on the notorious military dictator of Uganda, and 2007’s Terror’s Advocate, which followed Jacques Vergès, a lawyer infamous for defending Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie and Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy. But here’s the embarrassing bit where I admit I’m mostly familiar with Schroeder’s more Hollywood-friendly fare, like the thrillers Single White Female, Desperate Measures and Murder By Numbers. Suffice to say, even the warning that this would be about an “evil” Buddhist monk did not prepare me for what The Venerable W. had in store. It’s beyond jarring to see a Buddhist monk—typically thought to be a peaceful group—smiling over the carnage he’s caused. And that’s just the beginning.
In a series of interviews, Wirathu speaks calmly about the threat he believes Muslims pose to Myanmar (A.K.A. Burma). Statistics show Muslims are the minority, making up only 4 percent of the nation’s population. But the Islamophobic Wirathu frankly dismisses facts, comparing these people to ravenous catfish and horny rabbits who will overtake the land, choking out the Buddhist faith and “true” Burmese culture. He blithely denounces them as not really his countrymen, and repeatedly and casually employs a slur against the Muslims that the doc explains is comparable to the n-word. Wirathu preaches to his followers how they must “protect their religion,” and applies political pressure to instill their agenda into the government. As his detractors warn of the “fake news” Wirathu plants to demonize the Muslims and make himself seem all the grander, my stomach churned and churned.
Myanmar is on fire, literally and metaphorically. Wirathu has ignited a holy war that incites his followers to burn down the homes of Muslims, chasing many Burmese people—of both groups—out of flaming villages and into internment camps. It’s a civil war enacted by people who don’t recognize it as such, because the Buddhists following this menacing monk don’t believe the Muslims are their countrymen but terrorist invaders who use mosques as “military bases” to plan jihads. It’s ethnic cleansing done in the name of nationalism. Its rhetoric is so sickening and familiar. As Wirathu rails about how Muslims wish to reproduce like rabbits to wipe out the Buddhists, he sounds like any alt-right loon tweeting about the “white genocide” conspiracy.
The Venerable W. gives Wirathu plenty of time to preach and boast, and just enough rope to hang himself. His brash lies are immediately shot down by statistics and infographics. His chilling calm is offset by devastating footage of villages razed, and human bodies ablaze, some still twitching with life. His attempts at self-aggrandizement are repeatedly undercut by journalists and other monks, who speak openly about his limitations, hypocrisy and crimes. Schroeder shows both how this monk is dangerous, and also a grotesque fool. But the latter hardly matters when Wirathu still manages to sell books, peddle propaganda, and convince so many of his black-and-white fantasy, where Muslims are the great danger, and he is a hero to the preservation of their race and faith.
The Venerable W. is thorough and thoroughly gutting. Incredibly, Schroeder delivers a comprehensive look at a heinous conflict many Americans may have no awareness of, and yet can relate to on a disturbingly deep level. To say it’s a hard watch is an understatement. Regardless, it’s docs like this that refuse to let propagandist and tyrants dominate the conversation, and thus become essential viewing.