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The evil or the unbearable?

Le Vénérable W. ("The Honorable W.")
Regissør: Barbet Schroeder

Now, with the banishment of the royals: The last part of Barbet Schroeder's Trilogy of Evil deals with the Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu – the primus engine for anti-Muslim doings and barns in Myanmar.


After his first fiction movie More (1969) – a drama featuring a hippie heroine who was mainly influenced by collaboration with Pink Floyd – Schroeder directed a documentary on Uganda's dictator Idi Amin. It was a great surprise to the audience, and to Schroeder himself.

The other two of the trilogy. The idea of ​​making a series of documentaries malice – or rather about "human monsters" that represent the evil – was the beginning of Schroeder's triology.

I General Idi Amin Dada – A Self Portrait (1974) presented the Ugandan dictator with his simple, narcissistic personality, almost without inhibition. With Amin, the filmmaker discovered an uncomfortable truth: that a general who took power by military coup, and who held onto it by expelling and murdering hundreds of thousands of opposition members – including senior intellectuals, scientists, politicians and respected local leaders – had a fondness for humor as well as childlike and naive traits.

Schroeder had never before been in such close contact with a cold-blooded killer, nor had he envisaged such an opportunity. So he decided to follow this trail.

The second film of triology – Terror's Advocate (2007) – addresses controversial lawyer Jacques Vergès, who defended, among others, Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, Serbia's ex-president Slobodan Miloševic and terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (aka Carlos or "The Jackal").

Unfortunately, "evil (closet)" is still the most common term used by the media to create a simplified and false image of history.

With the Vergès documentary, Schroeder had the same goal in mind as with the movie about Amin; do not judge, but understand how these awful personalities are created and what circumstances make them possible. The term the evil is therefore deceptive – it refers to a metaphysical dimension, and suggests a force and manipulation from an external source that creates and manifests itself as evil.

Common expression. The concept of evil, or evil, is an intellectual catastrophe in that it frees a phenomenon from its social, political and psychological context – a context that produces, confirms and strengthens it. It hinders investigation and analysis, and makes it easier to make a simple accusation. Calling Hitler "the incarnation of evil" is, for example, an effective rhetorical move to avoid questions about his success and the movement that profited from what he did. Unfortunately, "evil" is still the most common term used by the media to create a simplified and false picture of history – and it is of great help to the responsible parties involved.

Today's Myanmar. Venerable W. is the last part of Schroeder's trilogy about evil, and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival this year. This terrifying film tells the story of what may prove to be the first genocide of the 21st century. At the forefront is Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu. Since the 1990s, this slender monk has, out of simple circumstances, spread violent anti-Muslim propaganda to the people of Myanmar, 88 percent of whom are Buddhists. Wirathu creates fear by describing how Muslims – who make up only 4 percent of the population – threaten the rest of the population's business, land and bloodlines. He claims that Muslims want to change Myanmar society by introducing polygamy, forcing Buddhist girls to change religion through forced marriages with Muslims, and that their goal is to destroy Buddhist culture and religion. The monk uses the term shaves in its misleading extinction rhetoric. Wirathu's extroverted persecution mania has succeeded in transforming a deeply peaceful population – rooted in the belief that race does not exist – into a murderous mass that has repeatedly attacked Muslims in large waves of violence, burned down thousands of homes and left hundreds behind. died.

Schroeder enriches the film with statements from political activists, journalists and, more importantly, from monks with in-depth knowledge of Wirathu – including his own teacher, who addressed the racist and nationalist speeches his student gave as a recent Buddhist monk.

Resistance Mann. Myanmar's police and military have long refrained from pursuing the Muslim colonies. After a military junta took power in 1962, many of the powerful Buddhist monasteries came under the influence of the junta. Wirathu played a leading role in the resistance to military control, with peaceful demonstrations that eventually ended in violent confrontations. To view these events, Schroeder posts photos from mobile phones and YouTube videos.

After serving a prison sentence, Wirathu joined the 969 movement and developed it into a disciplined, professional organization with propaganda strategies that included DVDs and daily Facebook messages watched by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. As the money began to flow in, the military changed its strategy – now the waves of violence against the Muslim minority are welcomed.

Unfortunately, the Peace Prize winner and leader of the National League for Democracy Aung San Suu Kyi's role is mentioned only in passing. Better insight into this would be valuable.

Wirathu's strategy spreads fear while delivering fairly concrete promises of profit.

Promises of profit. Schroeder does not confront the viewer as much with "evil" as with the unbearable reality of giving the bluff in human life. Like nature, human life in itself has no commercial value, and therefore has no protection against commercial exploitation. For it is not the "power of evil" that transforms family men into killing machines. Wirathu's strategy spreads fear while delivering fairly concrete promises of profit to a population that lacks access to basic education and knowledge, including about its own religion. The people's religious practice is usually limited to sacrificing to the monks – who are reciprocated with the promise that it can be profitable later, in this life or the next.

The unbearable. To understand the concept unbearable is to accept that morality has no ontological status. It is admittedly a fragile concept, but it is necessary for the survival of mankind.

Bulle Ogier – French actress and Schroeder's wife – has quite a few, but clear and simple comments outside the picture in the documentary, which she makes in a soft and friendly voice. The last is: "Only love (and forgiveness) can break the spiral of violence." It could also be useful to add: Take a closer look at the profit violence generates, and then uncover and control the businesses involved. That would be an effective step forward.

Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a critic living in Paris.

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