Over the next few weeks, our writer in Melbourne, Sean W. Fallon, will be covering the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) and reviewing some of his favourite movies from the festival.
Overview: A look at the conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma and the monk who has become the face of inciting racial hatred. Les Films du Losange, 2017; Rated-R; 107 mins.
Hatred: The hate speech used by Ashin Wirathu (the titular W.) is incendiary, dangerous, and hard to hear. It is also talk that is so commonplace in modern society that I found myself seeing exact phrases and expressions that I had heard at the pub, from co-workers, from conservative relatives, and in the right-leaning newspapers of Australia and England. The Venerable W. shows what happens when that sort of talk boils over and people go from just complaining about how they read in the paper that Islam is taking over the world to marching in the streets and burning down people’s homes.
Monk: The most jarring thing about The Venerable W. is that the source of the hate comes from a bald-headed monk wearing saffron robes and a huge smile. When I told people I was going to see a movie about a Buddhist monk who incites hatred against Muslims more than one person laughed and said, “Don’t you mean the other way around?” The idea we hold in our heads of Buddhism is of a religion of peace, tranquillity, and humble living while the idea that we are constantly being sold about Islam is that it is the religion of hatred and violence. To see a calm, tranquil Buddhist monk call for the extermination of the Islamic population of Burma is so incongruous that when Wirathu is not talking about Islam and just recounting the story of his life, you find yourself forgetting the hate speech and being lulled into his story.
Documentary: The Venerable W. completes Barbet Schroeder’s Evil Trilogy after 1974’s General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait and 2007’s Terror’s Advocate. Schroeder does well to put Wirathu front and center and let him tell his story so that we can see there is no outside influence painting the man as a villain. He is very proud of his achievements: the books he was written, the social media presence he keeps up, the disciplines and acolytes he has accumulated, the violence he has incited, so he is happy to talk at length about it. We also hear from human rights activists and other monks who disagree with Wirathu, even though none of them come out and condemn his actions outright.
Overall: An incredibly chilling and haunting movie, The Venerable W. does not leave you on an upbeat note and a lot of people shuffled out of the cinema when it was over. As stated in the introduction, Islamophobia is not something new. The casual racism which people engage in on the media and in casual conversation is not quite at the level that Wirathu is operating on but everything has to start somewhere. The Venerable W. is a cautionary tale about what happens when we believe that another race is invading and the only way to force them out is with violence. It is telling that towards the end of the movie when Wirathu talks about world politics he states that Islam is planning to completely engulf the world and the only way to stop it would be for the USA to elect Donald Trump as President. It then cuts to Wirathu addressing a crowd with a call and response speech about which race is best and which race needs to be removed from Burma’s borders and not allowed to return.
Featured Image: Les Films du Losange