Daniel Nelson

Sadly, The Venerable W. could not be more topical. It's a profile of a Buddhist monk in Myanmar who has risen to prominence because of his fierce anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Muslims breed quickly (“Muslims' sex strategy”) and are violent (“Mosques are military bases to plan attacks on non-Muslims”), says

The Venerable W.,

The Venerable W.,

Image by The Vnerable W.

. They are a threat to Buddhism and to the nation, though Muslims form barely 4 per cent of the population.

It's the universal language of nationalists and bigots, delivered – for the most part – quietly, without histrionics. Rabble-rousing, saffron-style.

One of the few times his calm demeanour slips is when he dismisses a foreign official's criticism of anti-Rohingya policies by calling her “a whore”.

The documentary – the final film in the director's “Trilogy of Evil” – traces Wirathu's background and his rise to fame and notoriety. Like any firebrand populist nationalist leader, he has served time in jail. Though he first came to public notice with a critique of senior monks' meditation techniques, it's his religious-ethnic-nationalist vitriol that has given him clout.

The hate talk is spread by sermons, teach-ins, books, cassettes, rallies, social media.

And so, inevitably, the film reaches the point at which violence explodes, way beyond the limited outbreaks that have occurred up to that point, and ethnic cleansing begins.

Shocking, graphic newsreel and mobile phone footage gives the film a visual punch as it hammers home its point that the mass destruction of Rohingya homes (to the accompaniment of the deafening silence of Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi) is not a spontaneous occurrence, any more than the Rwandan genocide was unprompted bloodlust. “Human nature” and “ancient rivalries” do not explain such deadly uprisings.

Wirathu has a big following, and clearly enjoys the spotlight. But he has critics, including other monks, some of whom have tried to stop the violence. The film quotes Buddhist texts to emphasise its peacefulness: “According to Buddhism, we should go the gentle way”.

It's a compelling, alarming film.

 

* The Venerable W. is showing at the London Film Festival 2017 on 8 and 9 October 

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