The Venerable W. is a careful portrait for the leader of Myanmar’s ongoing genocide

The Venerable W

Image-makers chase wars, official or otherwise. The philosophizing comes later. Barbet Schroeder has done this before, in Uganda, and now he does it in Myanmar, slightly outpaced this time by the 24-hour news cycle, which has already debated the war’s status as an official genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya people living there. There is a kind of fascination here: the killing, the extreme nationalism, is led by Buddhist monks — isn’t this wrong, morally, yes, but also as a kind of disrespect to the text of one’s religion? And it is this question, rather than a broader expansive look, or one that includes the point-of-view of the hunted (they are defended by journalists, and violence against them is shown through iPhone video, but that isn’t quite the same, is it?), that Schroeder contemplates.

Schroeder had to negotiate to get the leader of the ethnic-cleansing strategy (Ashin Wirathu) on camera. Wirathu isn’t ever questioned or guided toward an alternate point of view (we never hear the voice of an interviewer), and so, while not opening himself up to criticism in the way Oliver Stone unintentionally did in his recent “interviews” with Putin, Schroeder adopts a similar, conservative approach: the propagandist gets the first word, Schroeder, we assume, is a genteel, passive off-camera interviewer-actor, and the overall tone is of rapt disgust. The best criticism Schroeder can employ, via some childlike narration, is that this is very hypocritical for a Buddhist.

There’s more to question: how Schroder is drawn to simplified images (the surging red of Buddhist robes against the black of the military, later edited to continue the same contrast with the white of the Muslims) and banal observations (Wirathu uses short films and online marketing to spread his upbeat message of hate — one of the few interview segments not edited into soundbites). But we know from events around the world, from the way Canadian news re-packages American news for us, that no matter the personal cost and effort to produce this documentary, even if it, one day, is a fascinating document of its time, today it has very little to offer. It takes its entire running time slowly creeping up on the observation that this is, maybe, not so different from other evil acts in human history. It slots into what Schroeder is calling his “Trilogy of Evil,” which perhaps makes it more saleable — moreso, anyway, than a 100-minute backstory news broadcast, which this often resembles.

One gets the sense that, in repeating the tired structure of a great man of (evil) power in finely-honed portrait, faceless masses around the fringes, Schroeder isn’t truly interested in unpacking religion — he never considers what this means to the people listening to his crypto-sermons (which never mention texts, instead rallying call-and-response to racist conclusions), never wonders how they can be seduced by a man who ends each answer with a wide-eyed, self-affirming nod. Instead, we just watch Wirathu justify himself (by contradicting his chosen faith) — and of course, he does, that’s what these types of leaders always do. What artists like Chris Marker and Alain Resnais did, at one time, with similar subject matter, was look outside mere rhetoric for cracks, openings, changes, a panorama instead of a (timid) snapshot. But Schroeder isn’t nearly so bold or imaginative.