July 30, 2020  (Web Review)

The Venerable W. 

(2020) 100 min. In French, Spanish & Burmese w/English subtitles. DVD: $26.98. Icarus Films (avail. from most distributors).

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

How is it that even a seemingly peaceful, introspective religion like Buddhism can be weaponized as a doctrine of intolerance? Quite easily, it would seem, judging from Barbet Schroeder’s unrelentingly depressing but wholly engrossing documentary The Venerable W. Its ostensible subject is the notorious anti-Muslim Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, who preaches hate against the Rohingya Muslims and who, not surprisingly, is a big fan of Donald Trump. He uses every medium of public address at his disposal—social media, film, public speeches, and more—to condemn Myanmar’s Muslim minority as a dire threat to his country’s Buddhist communities. His blind prejudice has led to the burning of Rohingya villages and the mass torture and murder of their inhabitants. The violence Wirathu condones is at least partly nationalistic, much in the same way, for example, the Serbs in the 1990s used nationalism and the ruse of victimhood as justification for their genocidal tendencies. But with Wirathu, there’s also a more frightening element of pure nihilism hiding behind the nationalist guide: in other words, he’s not exactly the Dalai Lama. Schroeder’s fearlessly probing documentary serves as an eye-opening reminder that this kind of anti-Muslim sectarian violence from Buddhist leaders in Myanmar is no 21st-century anomaly; in fact, there’s a long history of murderous Buddhist leaders in that country going back at least to the late 1970s, when the Burmese Buddhist government decided to try and rid the country of the Rohingyas back then in the name of religious purity. Wirathu is simply the latest in a lineage of hateful psychopath demagogues who use a corrosive mix of religion and nationalism to divide and conquer nations. Schroeder has a certain genius for “disappearing” in his documentaries, letting his subject matter speak for itself. And Venerable W is no different. No editorializing is needed when you can simply sit back as a filmmaker and let the interviewees do the work of judge and jury on Wirathu, who more or less indicts himself on camera through his despicable words and deeds. Highly Recommended. Aud: C, H. (M. Sandlin)