When you meet the film director Barbet Schroeder, whose distinguished career has spanned more than five decades, and you ask him about his next project, you should not be surprised to hear a response like the one the intrepid auteur gave me two years ago, at a New York City cocktail party: “Next week, I plan to fly somewhere far away and do something dangerous—too dangerous to talk about with anyone until it’s finished.”
Born in Tehran, in 1941, to a Swiss father and German mother and raised mostly in Paris, Schroeder has been one of world cinema’s most protean figures, changing forms and themes and settings relentlessly, so who could divine what he’d do next? Given Schoeder’s talk of far-flung travel, this new clandestine project of his didn’t sound to me like a big-budget thriller in the vein of his Single White Female. It surely didn’t sound like his wonderful documentary about Koko the sign-language-using gorilla, either. Could Schroeder’s new work be akin to his French-language Obscured by Clouds, in which he led his cast and crew deep into the jungle of New Guinea? Or would it delve into a new subculture, as he did with the drug-drenched underworld of Ibiza (More), the S and M subculture of Paris (Maitresse), or Charles Bukowski’s down-but-not-entirely-out Los Angeles (Barfly)?
Now that the fruit of Schroeder’s sub-rosa labors has screened to acclaim at this year’s New York Film Festival, I have my answer: The Venerable W is the final installment in Schroeder’s Trilogy of Evil. The first film in the trilogy was 1974’s General Idi Amin Dada, a “self-portrait” of Uganda’s colorfully bloodthirsty despot. The second was Terror’s Advocate (2007), which focused on Jacques Vergès, the Parisian attorney who represented international terrorists such as “Carlos the Jackal” and Nazi murderers like Klaus Barbie. The Venerable W completes Schroeder’s rogue’s gallery with a portrait of the title figure, a monk in Myanmar named Ashin Wirathu—or “W,” as Schroeder refers to him.
Labeled by Time Magazine as “The Face of Buddhist Terror,” the deceptively sweet-faced and gentle-cadenced Wirathu has, since the start of this century, preached hatred against his nation’s Muslim minority, the Rohingya. The Rohingya, whose ancestral home is Bangladesh, constitute only 4 percent of Myanmar’s population. Economic boycotts, riots, house burnings, mass rapes, internment camps, and murders—there’s little that the Rohingya haven’t suffered. Worse, Myanmar’s military leaders and its Nobel Peace Prize–winning figurehead head of state, Aung San Suu Kyi, have exacerbated rather than eased the widespread oppression. First they overlooked it, then they permitted it, and now they’re actively excusing and encouraging the tragedies.
Schroeder was wise to try to keep his work in Myanmar a secret: the military authorities would not be pleased with him if they noticed him and his filming. Unfortunately, they did notice—and weren’t pleased. Schroeder was able to leave Myanmar with life, limb, and footage intact, but he is banned from returning there.
Last week, just before Schroeder left New York for the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico, I spoke with him (not at a cocktail party this time, but by phone) about The Venerable W and its place in his filmography. Despite the grim subject matter, or perhaps to counteract it, Schroeder was congenial and charming.
When did you hatch the idea for your Trilogy of Evil?
With Idi Amin Dada, the results were so fantastic—I couldn’t believe the material I was getting. I immediately wanted to go on doing the same thing with different people. The next situation that came along was with the Khmer Rouge, who were then ruling Cambodia. It would not have been a movie about a bloody dictator but about a utopian dictatorship. At the time, the Khmer Rouge were surrounded by the Vietnamese, and everybody thought they would be eliminated. Through a contact in Thailand, I had the possibility of speaking to them. The project would have been a film in French in which their leaders would talk about their memories of their time at universities in Paris—which cafés they went to, what were the anti-colonialist movements of the period. But I couldn’t find the money to do that movie, and I haven’t recovered from it yet. I will mourn it forever.
What lessons have you learned from making your films about evil?
I learned that evil can’t be separated from humanity. Just today I was speaking about this with my friend Fernando Vallejo, the great Colombian writer whose novel Our Lady of the Assassins I made into a film. He said, Evil is the soul of man and civilization seeks to control it and does not succeed.
Were there noticeable similarities between Idi Amin, Jacques Verges, and Wirathu? Personality quirks, I mean—“tells” that they had in common?
That would be saying that evil marks everybody the same way. No, the evil in each of these three men was only part of their personality, part of their humanity, and that was a terrible discovery for me, terrifying. It implies the death of God. Also terrifying was my realization that you can meet evil people every day and fail to notice them. It’s not as if there is a big flashing light next to their heads. Everything looks pretty normal. It’s only when you dig deep and try to understand the implications and effects of their words that you discover the reality. Or a part of the reality, because I don’t pretend that I can discover the ultimate reality of people.
In the trilogy, you let Amin, Verges, and Wirathu profess their toxic opinions unchallenged. You never contradict them during the interview process, you never argue or ask embarrassing questions, although you do feature other interviewees arguing strenuously against those views. Obviously you’d rather let your subjects condemn themselves with their own talk. But are you also concerned that, if you challenge them, they’ll clam up or moderate what they say, or simply walk away?
Yes, and this was especially so with Wirathu, who has been frequently attacked by journalists. He knows all the bad things that one can say about him. So if you attack him, he’ll know where you’re going.
Was your nonconfrontational interview policy in place from the beginning of your work?
Right off the bat with Amin, yes. I just don’t like to judge. Even with my fictional movies, I don’t judge the characters. I’m like the Friends of Christ, who never judge! I believe this so much in my life that, if you asked me to be on the jury of a film festival, I would refuse it. In America, the jury system would give me trouble.
Did your experience with the real-world villains of your trilogy inform how you would conceive and shape the antagonists in your narrative films?
Absolutely. One person who could have been a trilogy subject was Claus von Bülow, in my film Reversal of Fortune. There you have a character who could be evil, or could be totally innocent. This ambiguity is fascinating to me.
In The Venerable W, you intriguingly mention “the cronies”—wealthy Burmese citizens who apparently finance Wirathu’s campaign of hatred.
Unfortunately, although journalists have tried to find out more about these cronies, it’s very difficult. Normally you should “follow the money,” but in Burma there is no way to do this because their money always comes via donations to the temples, and the temples need these donations to exist. So the money flowing in and out to Wirathu cannot be traced—it’s more efficient than Bitcoin.
What are your thoughts about Aung San Suu Kyi?
When I first arrived in Burma, she had just been elected, and it was a very festive country then. They had just discovered democracy. Pretty soon they discovered Facebook, too, and seventy percent of the population—even people who can barely read—is now on it. Like so many others, I was, of course, in favor of Aung San Suu Kyi. I thought she was a very clever politician, navigating around the military, and I believed that eventually she would succeed. Unfortunately, the truth has come out. She’s made a compromise that’s too big—like Pétain, when he tried to “save France” by working with the Nazis but eventually had his police rounding up France’s Jews. Instead of trying to save a country, you put it under water, beneath any moral standard, beneath any respect. “The Lady” has done exactly that. She took a leading part in the propaganda machine destroying the Royingha. She personally supervises a Facebook page that claims the stories of rape against Royingha women are fake, that the Royingha are burning their own houses. For me, this is the red line.
Have any prominent Buddhists spoken against Wirathu?
The Dalai has definitely been a voice against. Unlike the Tibetan Buddhists surrounding him in India, the Tibetans in Lhasa don’t much like the Muslims near there, but they never engage in any genocidal talk.
Are there anti-Wirathu Buddhists within Myanmar itself?
It’s not in the Buddhist temperament to push back vocally against anyone. They are careful not to offend people. They might say things in private, but to attack a fellow monk in public is generally not done. Still, there is the beginning of a movement—a group of monks who seem to intend to tone down Wirathu a little bit. They have sent a question to the Supreme Council, which has the ultimate authority over the monks. This council, by the way, is controlled by the military. The monks want an answer from the council on whether Wirathu is acting according to the words of the Buddha—yes or no. The council has been put on the spot.
What percent of the population holds anti-Royingha sentiment?
I would say that it’s about thirty percent. Of course, that’s the famous thirty percent.
Like the thirty percent or so who are pro-Trump, no matter what?
You had thirty percent of Chileans for Pinochet and you had thirty percent for Hitler—you always have thirty percent. This is the problem. And there are usually thirty percent that oppose them, and thirty percent in the middle who “don’t know.”
Who “don’t know” or are totally apathetic.
Right. But the bad thirty percent are everywhere.
Gary Lippman is a lapsed lawyer and former Fodor’s travel writer. His play Paradox Lust appeared off Broadway, his fiction has appeared in Open City, and his heart is in the Highlands.
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