Extreme Buddhism might sound like the brainstorm of a BBC Three producer, but in Barbet Schroeder’s ferocious documentary it’s about as far from a laughing matter as you could imagine. Despite their serene image in the West, a much more dangerous form of Buddhism has taken hold in Burma, led by Ashin Wirathu. He and his followers have committed what can only be described as genocide – the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims of the nation.
He inspires his followers with patriotic rhetoric, starting with the kind of petty xenophobia spewed in a transatlantic feedback loop by Brexiteers and Trump, and ending with pure hatred indistinguishable from Hitler and the Nazis.
Schroeder builds to these details slowly, allowing Wirathu to speak for himself in his reasonable, neutral tone. But this is racism pure and simple.
If there’s one problem that’s stumped nations over the last few years, it’s how to react to this insidious populist nationalism. If you try to disprove it with facts you’re shouted down by idiots; if you allow a more “liberal” approach and give them enough rope, their true followers will still believe regardless.
Le Venerable W. whiffs of that holier-than-thou back-patting at first, but Schroeder’s strategy pays dividends later. He allows Wirathu the time and space to explain his story and views, with no quibbles about misrepresentation, then he unleashes a torrent of harrowing footage that should settle the mind of any sane adult on who’s in the right. The footage is savage, and arguably goes too far, but its purpose is clear: how could anyone who watches it believe in Wirathu’s crusade?
The opening act muddles the narrative a little and the talking heads sometimes become unimaginative, but with a superb control of story, Schroeder’s unflinching footage inspires its audience to care about these outrageous crimes.
CAST: Bulle Ogier, Barbet Schroeder, Ashin Wirathu
DIRECTOR: Barbet Schroeder
WRITER: Barbet Schroeder
SYNOPSIS: In Burma, the “Venerable Wirathu” is a highly influential Buddhist monk. Meeting him amounts to traveling to the heart of everyday racism and observing how Islamophobia and hate speech lead to violence and destruction. Yet this is a country in which 90% of the population has adopted Buddhism as a faith: a religion based on a peaceful, tolerant and non-violent way of life.