The venerable W. (Original title: Le Vénérable W.)
The idea of filming a series of documentary works about evil, or more precisely, those who represent evil, human monsters, was the beginning of Barbet Schroeder’s Trilogy of Evil. After his first fictional films, mainly marked by his collaboration with Pink Floyd, the hippie heroin drama More (1969), he then directed a documentary about Uganda’s dictator, Idi Amin Dada, an overwhelming surprise for the public as well as for Schroeder. With Amin, the filmmaker discovered an uncomfortable truth: a general, who came to power by launching a military coup and then clinging to power by expelling or murdering hundreds of thousands of opposition members, including high-ranking intellectuals, scientists, politicians and respected community leaders, had a proclivity for humor and even showed childish and naive characteristics. In Schroeder’s General Idi Amin Dada – A Self Portrait (1974) the Ugandan dictator presented his simple, narcissistic personality almost without restriction.
Schroeder had never been in such close proximity with a coldblooded killer, and hadn’t imagined such a possibility before. Consequently, he decided to follow this path.
Terror’s Advocate (2007), the second part of his Trilogy of Evil depicts the controversial lawyer Jacques Vergès, who defended condemned key figures like Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and the terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (aka Carlos).
With the Vergès documentary, Schroeder applied the same purpose; not to condemn but to understand how these horrendous personalities are created and under what circumstances they become possible. Therefore, the term evil is misleading, because it refers to a metaphysical dimension, indicating a force and manipulation from an external source, which creates and manifests itself as evil.
A common expression. This concept and the term ‘evil’ is an intellectual disaster, because it separates a phenomenon from its social, political and psychological context, a context which produces, confirms and fortifies it. It prohibits examination and analysis and facilitates the declaration of a simple accusation. Calling Hitler for example the incarnation of evil is an effective rhetorical term to silence questions concerning his success and his movement which managed to turn a profit from his deeds. Unfortunately, for most media outlets, the term evil is still the most common expression used to produce a simple and false view of history, largely useful for the responsible parties involved.
«The idea of ‘evil’ is the central subject of a trio of documentaries or, more precisely, those who represent evil, the ‘human monsters’, mark Barbet Schroder’s ‘Trilogy of Evil.’»
Barbet Schroeder completed his Trilogy of Evil with The Venerable W which was shown at the 2017 Cannes film festival. This chilling film tells the story of what could turn out to be the first genocide of the 21st century. At its helm is the Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu. Since the 1990’s this slender monk from a simple family has been spouting delirious anti-Muslim propaganda to Myanmar’s 88% majority Buddhist population. Wirathu instills fear by describing how the Muslims, representing only 4% of the population, are threatening their businesses, land and bloodlines. He claims they will transform Myanmar’s society by inculcating polygamy, forcing Buddhist girls to change their religion through forced marriages with Muslims with the aim to erase Buddhist culture and religion. The monk posits the term ‘race’ into his delusional rhetoric of extinction. Wirathu’s extroverted, mania for persecution has successfully managed to transform a deeply peaceful population, with an intensely rooted belief in the absence of ‘race’, into a murdering mass, which has already repeatedly attacked Muslims in huge waves of violence, burning down thousands of houses and leaving hundreds dead.
Schroeder enriches his work with statements from political activists, journalists and, more importantly, from monks with intimate knowledge of Wirathu, including his own teacher, who corrects his former students racist and nationalistic sermons he first declared as a Buddhist monk.
The police and military in Myanmar have routinely stayed out of the persecution of the Muslim communities. After the 1962 military junta, influential Buddhist monasteries remained under their influence. Wirathu played a leading role resisting military control with peaceful demonstrations, which finally ended in violent confrontations. To demonstrate these events, Schroeder integrates cell phone images and YouTube videos.
«Unfortunately, for most media outlets, the term ‘evil’ is still the most common expression used to produce a simple and false view of history, largely useful for the responsible parties involved. »
After Wirathu’s imprisonment, he founded and then transformed his 969 Movement into a disciplined, professional organization using propaganda strategies that produced DVD’s and daily Facebook messages, visited by hundreds of thousands of spectators worldwide. As money began to flow in, the military altered its strategy, now welcoming the oncoming waves of violence directed towards the Muslim minority.
Disappointingly, Schroeder only briefly mentions the role of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest in 2010 and the Leader of the National League for Democracy. A closer look into this subject would have been valuable.
Promises of profit. Schroeder confronts the spectator less with the ‘evil’, but with the unbearable realities of neglecting human life. As nature, human life by itself has no commercial value and therefore no protection against all kinds of commercial exploitation. It is not the “force of evil” that transforms family men into killing machines. Wirathu’s strategy spreads fear while, at the same time, making quite concrete promises of profit to a population lacking access to basic education and knowledge, including of their own religion, which for them is limited to offerings to the monks, in return for a promise that this may be profitable in this lifetime or the next.
To understand the notion of ‘unbearable’ is to accept that morality has no ontological status. It is just a fragile concept but necessary for the survival of humanity.
Bulle Ogier, French actress and wife of Barbet Schroeder, offers relatively few, clear and simple off camera commentaries in her soft and tender voice. The final one: “only love (and forgiveness) can break the spiral of violence”. It would also be beneficial to add: take a closer look at the profit made by violence, then reveal and control the businesses involved. This would be an effective step forward.
Screened at DocLisbo