Barbet Schroeder’s The Venerable W. forms part of what he has described, broadly, as a “Trilogy of Evil,” following his 1974 documentary about Idi Amin and his 2004 documentary about Jacques Verges. This time, the subject of Schroeder’s camera is Ashin Wirathu, the “Buddhist extremist” who has attracted so much attention from the Western media over the last decade. A Burmese Buddhist and nationalist, Wirathu has made it his life’s mission to expel the Rohingaya Muslims from Burma, rallying his supporters to recognise them as a threat to the ongoing survival of Buddhism in the country. In doing so, he has revived older nationalist tracts as well as a broader anti-Muslim sentiment that has been associated with the Rohingaya presence in Burma for much of the twentieth century. That much of the story has been extensively documented by the Western world, so Schroeder’s film isn’t an expose in any regular sense. Nor is it especially interested in recapitulating the facts of the matter in a particularly palatable manner for the lay watcher, moving from situation to situation, and intercutting different sources of historical footage, to evoke a palimpsest of different energies and forces more than any one direct way of approaching or condemning Wirathu.
In part, that’s because the film is centred on a sustained interview with Wirathu himself, whose presence, in person, is so different from the hysterical Western depiction of him, that it effectively precludes any kind of blunt moralizing or sermonizing on Schroeder’s part. Yet Wirathu’s presence here also clarifies the extent to which Schroeder’s Trilogy of Evil has functioned, in part, as post-colonial trilogy, or Orientalist trilogy, interrogating the way in which Western conceptions of morality are still defined against a non-Western sense of othernes. While The Venerable W. may never condone Wirathu’s actions, then, it does refrain from the kinds of lofty that has tended to accompany journalistic depictions of his life and teachings, which have been almost gleeful in their designation of him as a figure of “evil” moral agency, and as a rare case study in allocating evil without any real complication.
From that perspective, you might almost say that Schroeder’s Trilogy of Evil has focused on non-Western characters that have been considered “safe” places for Western thinkers to focus moral panic, or moral pomposity, in an era in which the awareness of colonial forces makes this kind of projection more problematic in the liberal media. In the case of The Venerable W., that involves a more immediate and immersive encounter with Wirathu on his own terms, since, from the very outset, it’s clear that we’re dealing with a highly learned individual, well versed in canon, literature and law, as well as an individual who has put his life and body on the line for his nationalist beliefs, having spent been jailed for eight years for his involvement in political uprisings in the early twenty-first century. According to Wirathu, “in prison I practiced meditation for ninety-nine months…my serenity comes from the concentration I acquired there” – and that serenity is easily his most striking aspect, especially in contrast to the Western hysteria surrounding his actions, forcing Schroeder to consciously decelerate the pace and ambience of the film to match his meditative mindset.
Of course, that sense of calm makes Wirathu all the more unsettling, in part because it gives his actions and intentions a broader historical sweep. In the popular media, it’s common to pain him as hysterically overestimating the reach and power of Muslims in his country, producing the kind of paranoia and hyperbole that typically precedes genocide. Yet while the Rohingaya may only make up four percent of the population, Wirathu makes it clear, in various ways, that he doesn’t simply regard them as a clear and present danger, but as part of a long-term Islamic colonization of the region that he compares to the gradual spread of Muslim thought throughout Indonesia from the fifteenth-century onwards. Certainly, that currently seems like an unlikely analogy for Burma, but Schroeder is nevertheless careful to present Wirathu as a thinker whose projections stretch far into the future, rather than the impulsive and unthinking ideologue that he is so often caricatured to be by the Western media. To that end, Schroeder tends to offset the archival footage (more pronounced here than in either of his previous two documentaries and supplemented, in the present day, by YouTube) with a more serene, airless, pristine, languorous sense of digital immanence, capturing Wirathu’s calm but also something more unsettling that subsists on that calm as well.
The result is a film that manages to be immersive and detached in the same breath, making it impossible to ever sympathise with Wirathu, but just as difficult to approach him from any conventional point of critical detachment either, since here, as in his previous two documentaries, Schroeder has no real ideological investment in either articulating his own connections to his subject or performing an objective distance from his subject either. While Schroeder apparently provides some of the voiceovers, then, you’d never know it, since he divests himself of even the most notional presence in the film, meaning that when his utterances do finally make themselves felt, he has transformed, himself, into just another figure within the film, jettisoning the film itself to a kind of autonomous perceptual apparatus that doesn’t quite know how to discern the right way to frame Wirathu’s mission.
Of course, the film leaves no doubt that Wirathu’s mission is a destructive one, gradually compiling and compounding its footage until it becomes clear that what he is suggesting is nothing short of ethnic cleansing. That’s old news, though, and doesn’t need a film from Schroeder to reiterate its profound horrors to the public, which is presumably why The Venerable W. takes another direction, interrogating the West’s peculiarly visceral investment in Wirathu as much as his actual crimes. Time and again, Schroeder taps into all the traits that make Wirathu and his followers affronting to a Western demographic that might want to think of Buddhist monks as reassuringly and benignly apolitical, or as incapable of collective action. At the same time, the film gradually converges Aung San Suu Kyi with Wirathu, first by way of the Saffron Revolution, and then via the criticisms made of her relative inaction regarding this branch of militant Buddhism, but in ways that speak more to the Western need to select, acclaim and canonize non-Western figures as purveyors of human rights, even as they insist on them transcending the particulars and compromises of the very contexts that force them to fight for human rights to start with.
More generally, as Schroeder frames it, the sheer possibility of Buddhist extremism, or Buddhist militarism, is the real affront of Wirathu, insofar as it strikes to the heart of the Western fantasy of Buddhism, and the benign East, as a horizon of apolitical transcendence. To suggest that even monks might not be capable of transcending politics necessarily disrupts the supposedly apolitical address of cultural critics, which perhaps explains why reviews of the film have been so anxious to double down on a quite archaic moral invective for signaling their disapproval of Wirathu and his actions – not, it would seem, to simply express moral digust, but, in many cases, to reiterate precisely the subject position of apolitical objectivity that, in the Western consciousness, is so bound up with the stately removal of Buddhism. What The Venerable W. clarifies, in other words, is the extent to which Western culture is invested in Buddhism as both a symbol of something that remains beyond politics, but also as a reassurance that everything that needs to be within politics is neatly contained by the West, and by its claims to univocal, beneficent political discourse.
In Western terms, then, the film’s treatment of Wirathu is incoherent, since Schroeder simply places his meditative and militant registers side by side without trying to either explain or condemn them out of existence. Early in the film, a voiceover reminds us that, for Buddhists, there are only four sources of materiality – their bowl, their clothes, the religious texts and their monastery – and the film never clarifies where Wirathu’s heightened attention to the materialities of economic and political life fits into this sparse materialist matrix, even as Schroeder never fully dissociates these two types of material existence either. Hence the strange immersive-objective push-and-pull of the film, in which every immersion in Wirathnu’s teachings, and every rupture of that immersive calm, feel equally provisional and equally inexplicable within the Western optics that has latched onto him. Throughout the film, fragments of Buddhist text are continuously superimposed over Wirathu’s utterances, often in ways that seem to directly contradict them, but the effect is never ironic or knowing, instead evoking a political horizon within whch that very gesture of irony is complicit in the world that produced Wirathu, undoing the position of film critics and director in the process. After all, Wirathu’s actions aren’t all that different from Western Islamophobia, but from his Western reception you’d think that persecution of Muslims have never been known in the West, so virulently and violently is he disavowed.
One of the odd results of that figurative dissonance is that even the main American commentator in the film, an aid worker in Burma, is unconvincing and irritating, just as even the discourse of Western beneficence is somehow undone – or at least complicit in – the way in which Wirathu fuses Buddhism with everything it is supposed to mitigate against in the Orientalist imagination, culminating with his injunction to Americans to vote for Trump. That concludes with an extraordinary sequence in which Wirathu takes the viewer into the heart of his media and communications department, where his team have been working on a film called “The Black Days,” which is to become the epicentre of their campaign. On the one hand, this film depicts exactly what most accounts of Wirathu seem to leave out – namely, the rape, torture and murder of a Buddhist woman that led to his mission of nationalism in the first place. Of course, this doesn’t justify his ethnic cleansing program, but it does ground it in a horror of Muslim violence whose continuity with Western paranoia has been largely disavowed by the Western media, who instead paint Wirathu’s irrationality and hatred as a different category of experience from anything available in the Western world. Yet Wirathu’s own film of these events doesn’t recapitulate this horror in a manner amenable to Western audiences, opting instead for a campy, cheesy and poppy register that almost defies the audience to ironise it, especially when relayed through Schroeder’s lens.
While reviews of Schroeder’s film may have been suffused with a sense of moral outrage, then, the film is more a query of the nature of this outrage as much as it is an examination of Wirathu’s own acts and beliefs. At a time when much of America and Europe feels the same way as he does – he is, after all, a Trump supporter – his evolution into a meme, which his supporters welcome, is no less surprising than the anxieties that he raises, which fuse two of the dominant Western subject positions at the moment – detached, despairing observer and virulent, rabid racist – into a single entity, producing a queasy experience that resulted in no small number of uncertain laughs at the festival screening where I watched it. And it’s the way in which Wirathu responds to the contradictory expectations of the West by embodying the West’s own contradictions, in an intensified manner, that makes The Venerable W. such a fascinating, unsettling and amorphous experience – a film that never quite coheres into one thing, just because a certain form of incoherence is its real subject.