When most people think of Buddhism, they think of the religion of peace, the one where the jolly fat guy sits under a bodhi tree, chills out and preaches tolerance and joy to all, right? Well, we have bad news for you. In the nation of Myanmar, there is a genocide under way of a Muslim minority ethnic group called the Rohingya. These poor people have been oppressed for years and years, only now, we can add the element of their destruction being led by Buddhist monks. And there’s one monk in particular who is leading the charge more than the rest. His name is Wirathu, and he is pure evil. This film, The Venerable W. exposes what this vile man is doing and worse – how terrifyingly familiar it is to us here in America.
Barbet Schroeder, best known for films like Barfly and Reversal of Fortune directs this harrowing documentary, and his approach is far closer to the classical serenity of The Enlightened One than any of the murderous, violent thugs we see in this movie. Whereas most documentaries are constantly blaring out their message with gratuitous use of fast cuts and music cues, The Venerable W. itself is more of a meditative affair, simply showing what is, with very little narration. Long stretches of camera shots capturing barbaric scenes of village burnings, terrifying mobs and relentless beatings happen almost quietly without expository explanation, letting the viewer soak in the misery in an unsettling silence.
Of course, there are plenty of interviews, especially of the eponymous monk, who sounds very much like certain political demagogues in the United States. What does he talk about? Foreigners who are taking over their land and need to be sent back. He blatantly lies about supposed atrocities the Rohingya have perpetrated and uses single incidents as “proof” that all of their people are inherently evil – even that the Muslim religion itself is evil. We see him producing and distributing DVD’s reenacting rapes and other crimes blamed on these dispossessed folks, conjuring powerful propaganda pieces which compel his fellow monks to commit unspeakable acts.
The film also interviews the experts who document these lies and the many crimes against humanity this horror show of a holy man has created. It’s a terribly grim film with plenty of scenes of extreme violence and extrajudicial killings. For anyone following the story of what’s happening in Myanmar, The Venerable W. provides insights which don’t make the news. But what’s most frightening of all is how all of this awfulness is reflected in the current age of American politics. Xenophobic pandering to whip up hysteria and outrage are used effectively by Wirathu, and very much echo the playbook of a particular tweeting president you may have heard of. Can such a thing happen here? Maybe, especially if the world fails to take heed to what’s happening to these innocent people and works to do much, much better.
THE VENERABLE W. screens at NYFF on Friday, October 13, and Saturday, October 14.