Each Columbus Day, many Americans reevaluate the notion of one person discovering the U.S and the subsequent destruction of the native people who had been her inhabitants for years before Columbus’s arrival. So it is ironic that on this day I saw Barbet Schroeder’s documentary on the violence perpetrated upon the Rohinja Muslims of Burma, The Venerable W.
Burma has a very different birthing, and though interesting, it is not the reason this story and this film are so riveting and poignant. It is alive and going on right now. Even this morning, the BBC told a boat of desperate Rohinjas capsizing, one man watching his entire family drown. The Venerable W is a film about philosophy and how easily bad thinking and deluded points of view can destroy when in the hands of a racist; a respected monk who has found his way into the dark heart of his country’s citizens.
Mr. Schroder leads us off with a quote by Lord Byron “Hate is by far the greatest pleasure; men love in haste, but detest in leisure.”
As a practicing Buddhist, this story must be particularly hard for Schroder. The tenets of Buddhism of unconditional love, making good karma and living in the now are how we mostly view the teachings of the Buddha. In the film, a lovely twinkly voice (Bulle Ogier) recites many of the homilies that we think of when we imagine a good Buddhist practice. But in the hands of the monk Ashin Wirathu, all of this is turned on its head.
Wirathu, raised through the ranks of monasteries, had something else knawing at him. Whether his hatred of the Muslim population started with the story of the rape of a 14 year old Buddhist girl by Muslim men or some manifest fantasy to reclaim oil rich land and make himself a star, is unimportant. That this apparently charismatic ‘evil one’ has grabbed the balls of Buddhism and the citizens of Myanmar is clear. Percolating his hatred for six years in prison (crime: inciting riots); he came out a leader who admires Trump and feeds absolute lies to his people about their Muslim neighbors “breeding like animals” while he runs a media center and seems to control the military. All of this is shocking enough… a Hitler reborn is no surprise, we hear the same ugly crap from our own native born racists, but Wirathu, a monk, claims to be doing this all under the smile of the Buddha.
The documentary uses historical footage to aid the viewer in getting a fuller sense of the background, but the candid interviews with Wirathu are so fresh and natural. He doesn’t hold back; his confidence comes from the high approval rating. Only a few NGO’s and older Monks have the courage to speak out, but have yet found the power to stop him.
It’s a very well made film. The occasional outbursts of music, sounding somewhat like traditional instruments, add a drama that isn’t necessary. In the short film that accompanies, Where are you Barbet Schroeder? we get close to the director’s own bouts with rage and forgiveness and how complicated for him it is to change angry thoughts. What we are left with is an understanding of how easy it is for one dedicated, ego maniac to ignite the flames of hatred and violence while convincing himself and his followers that they’re doing sacred business.
The film screens at the New York Film Festival this week. Mr. Schroeder will speak.