BUDDHISM
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Myanmar's democratic transition

Cannes Film Festival hosts portrait of Ashin Wirathu, the firebrand Buddhist monk who preaches hard line against Rohingya

Wirathu’s incendiary anti-Muslim views have been condemned by many who blame them for contributing to deadly riots across Myanmar’s southwestern Rakhine state

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 3:06pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 10:30pm

Taken on face value, Barbet Schroeder’s latest documentary appears to be about social problems unfolding far away from the Cannes Film Festival, where his feature premiered on Saturday.

The Venerable W revolves around Ashin Wirathu, the leader of Myanmar’s hardline anti-Muslim Buddhist organisation Ma Ba Tha. Splicing existing footage with new material Schroeder shot in Myanmar – including, of course, interviews with the monk himself – the film is a searing portrait of the man labelled “The Face of Buddhist Terror” in a cover feature in Time magazine in July 2013.

Schroeder said his film is just as relevant to audiences in France, however.

“I’d like to show the movie to the people of Marine Le Pen,” he said, referring to the far-right French politician who managed to secure 34 per cent of the vote in France’s presidential elections on May 7.

Speaking to the South China Morning Post, the 74-year-old Tehran-born, Paris-based German-Swiss filmmaker said Wirathu’s rhetoric features “exactly the same things” as Le Pen’s.

“Nationalism, populism and Islamophobia – there are many axes of evil around the world where you have all these irrational fears which could be proven wrong at the start, but the people don’t want to hear,” he said.

Wirathu’s fiery anti-Muslim views have been condemned by many who blame them for contributing to deadly riots across Myanmar’s southwestern Rakhine state. The monk and his followers have also been vocal in supporting legislation which would strip Muslim Rohingyas – 5 per cent of Myanmar’s population – of their citizenship.

Nationalism, populism and Islamophobia – there are many axes of evil around the world where you have all these irrational fears
Barbet Schroeder, director

In the documentary, Wirathu is shown freely comparing Muslims to “violent” African catfish, bashing German chancellor Angela Merkel’s embrace of migrants from the Middle East and insisting Donald Trump’s anti-immigration stance “will bring peace to the US”.

Wirathu is equally enamoured of Le Pen, Schroeder said, after the filmmaker told the monk the similarities between Ma Ba Tha’s demands and the French politician’s proclamations about limiting immigration and curbing the rights of the Muslim community in France.

“I’d like to find out the details about how he would make anti-Muslim laws,” Schroeder said. “So he was very happy to talk about that. It always helps that it’s a movie for theatres – all my movies were never for TV – and that I was a director from Hollywood. That always helps.”

Although well-known for US hits such as Reversal of Fortune and Single White Female, Schroeder was also feted for his documentaries on notorious historical figures, such as General Idi Amin Dada, about the late Ugandan dictator, and Terror’s Advocate, a portrayal of Jacques Verges, the maverick French lawyer who defended the terrorist Carlos the Jackal and Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie.

The Venerable W completes what he described as his “trilogy of evil”.

According to Schroeder, what sets Wirathu apart from Idi Amin is the meticulous organisation supporting this “face of evil”. In the documentary, Wirathu’s disciples make films, produce DVDs and manage a Facebook page to promote their master’s views.

“This is modern times,” Schroeder said. “In 2003 [when the first anti-Muslim riots broke out], there were propaganda leaflets distributed at bus stops which helped raise tensions. These days you don’t need them, you just go on internet and manage your image cleverly.”

Although Wirathu is the obvious villain of the piece, Aung San Suu Kyi comes out of the film with her image tarnished. The documentary criticises the Myanmar leader for not acting further to denounce anti-Muslim violence in her country.

Schroeder said he was prohibited from returning to Myanmar to continue filming after his first visit, a decision made by Suu Kyi’s aides, he said.

“I know she could have tried to authorise it but there’s no way,” he said. “Not only that I was not allowed to return, but I was told I should forget [applying]. I said: ‘Can you send me a letter?’ And they said: ‘You’ll never receive a letter from us telling you you can’t come back.’”

Schroeder said Suu Kyi’s position is “very difficult” but she has also become “part of” the problem.

“She is now denying any rapes were being committed by the Myanmar military [against Rohingyas],” he said. “She’s denying the burning of villages which everybody has photos of. She’s denying everything because she has never gone there, and she never lets the UN go there.”