The outspoken monk

A scene from The Venerable W. Photo courtesy of Festival de Cannes

At the start The Venerable W., we see the firebrand Myanmar monk Ashin Wirathu speaking to the camera, calmly and casually. He talks about the African catfish, a creature that “grows fast, breeds a lot and is violent”. The punchline is not totally unpredictable: “Muslims are like that.”

Without a Thai movie at the Cannes Film Festival this year, The Venerable W. seems the closest thing to a current report from this region. The hot-topic documentary by director Barbet Schroeder has generated much political and emotional reflection at the festival. And while those who closely follow the events in the country may already be familiar with the content, The Venerable W.‘s strength is staunchly cinematic: Hearing Wirathu speak his thoughts, watching him in action as he travels the country to spread the inexorable gospel of hatred to loyal followers, and to see footage of arson, protests and violence against the Rohingyas. All of this contributes to the film’s sense of urgency and deep relevance to the state of the world.

After his famous cover on Time magazine in 2013 with the headline “The Face Of Buddhist Terror”, Wirathu has since become a symbol of extremism and intolerance in a region — and a religion — often associated with peace, predicating the rise of other disturbing trends such as anti-immigration, populism, nativism, fake-news propaganda and the politics of fear. For Schroeder, a well-known filmmaker who’s done both documentary and feature films (Single White Female, for instance), The Venerable W. completes his “Trilogy Of Evil”, a trio of portraits of highly controversial figures in modern history — the earlier two films being General Idi Amin Dada (1974), and Terror’s Advocate (2007, about Jacques Verges, the lawyer known for defending terrorists and militants).

Here is a story of everyday racism and fiery sermons, a story of how faith is contorted to fit the political sentiment of a country going through convulsive changes. Schroeder recalls in the film’s press material that he did months of intense research “in absolute secrecy” prior to filming, then he entered Myanmar with a tourist visa and approached Wirathu.

“He wanted to know why I was doing the film and I told him that Marine Le Pen [France’s right-wing presidential candidate] shared many of his ideas and if she was elected she would probably push through laws that were a lot like those he had just managed to get passed in Myanmar [laws restricting the basic rights of Muslims, such as how many children they can have]. I want to look at the major problems the West was suffering through the prism of this Buddhist character who was actually, above all, a nationalist and populist.”

Le Pen lost but the monk remains. The Venerable W. traces the rise and stumbles and rise again of Wirathu, with the monk himself telling his own story to us. Wirathu seems to suggest that the seed of his Islamophobia came from when he was a boy and heard the story of a woman being raped brutally by Muslim men in the town of Kyaukse. As a young monk in Mandalay, he challenged the hierarchy of Myanmar Buddhist clergy by spreading unconventional ideas, first about meditation, then about the Rohingya Muslims’ secret plot to take over the country (Muslims constitute 4% of the Myanmar population).

In the film, Wirathu appears calm and good-humoured. Even when his words are charged with racist insults and preposterous claims, he says them without a hint of anger or disgust. But in footage obtained by the filmmaker, some of them from YouTube, Wirathu speaking before his followers — monks as well as laypeople — is an impassioned preacher who punctuates his delivery with shouts and slogans, fang-baring, as he openly incites hatred and calls for action.

Wirathu was jailed in the mid-2000s by the junta — and yet he claims in the film, falsely, that he’s the one who sparked the Saffron Revolution of Buddhist monks in 2007. When he was released in 2012, Wirathu stepped up his aggression through his Ma Ba Tha movement, with its savvy team of social-media manipulators who spread “news” about Muslim threats and the evil of the Rohingyas. The film contains considerable footage of the violent clashes against the Muslim minority, which Wirathu always dismissed as incidents provoked by the Muslims.

“On the ground I quickly understood we had much to learn from these Buddhist extremists,” Schroeder said in the press material. “The different ‘Axes Of Evil’ and populisms have no borders. I wanted to understand how this kind of speech could move people into action while those who gave such sermons often spoke of peace and harmony.” Schroeder said that even with the new government and Aug San Suu Kyi’s influence, the military found out about their filming. “[They had] a file containing photos of our secret shoots in all the Muslim areas we’d visited. The military was also aware of our frequent meetings with Wirathu.”

The filmmakers left Myanmar, believing they could go back to finish the film. But they couldn’t, since they were banned “until further notice” and some of the remaining interviews had to be set up in Thailand instead.

A powerful documentary, The Venerable W. is journalism, advocacy and spiritual reflection rolled into one (the film also features monks who staunchly oppose the radicalism of Wirathu, as well as journalists Matthew Smith and Carlos Sardiña Galache). Despite the changing situation in Myanmar, the story told here is immediate and important, a disturbing look at the birth of intolerance and its social and political spawns — something that Thailand, with our own political and religious spats, should study and learn from.