Le Venerable W

France, Switzerland


In Burma, the “Venerable Wirathu” is a highly respected and 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.

Director's Statement

"Fair discourse is to abstain from speaking lies and words that incite hatred, enmity, disunion and discord between individuals or groups of people."

-The fair discourse sutra – as close as possible to Buddha's historic words, spoken contemporaneously to Ancient Greece (Pali language, 5th century BC)

Buddhism is an atheistic religion, without gods and admitting pessimism. This thought always fascinated me, to the extent that in 1959, at the age of 18, I undertook a long journey to Buddhism's historic sites, including those in Sri Lanka.

That everything constantly changes and is transformed is one of the cornerstones of the Buddhist world view. Buddha himself foresaw the end of his doctrine. He predicted that 5,000 years later, there would be nothing left of it. No other religious leader has ever had such courage. That is perhaps what always made me feel that Buddhism was one of the greatest treasures of humanity (which may disappear in a similar time span).
I have worked unstintingly on the project I describe here ever since its premise came to me. The idea emerged a little more than a year ago, after I had read a paper by Yale Law School requesting in very official terms the intervention of the United Nations in Myanmar.
The paper chronicled the external signs of a genocide taking place there implicating Buddhism. It incriminated in this respect a movement of extremist monks. Resolving to find out more, I set off for the most Buddhist city in the world, Mandalay, whose population of one million includes 400,000 monks living in hundreds of monasteries all around the city. They are followers of the Theravada school, the closest to original Buddhism.

I am not alone in considering Buddhism to be one of the last ramparts and perhaps the final illusion - the only religion that has so far escaped fanaticism and extremism. Indeed, the Buddhist idea has completely penetrated the West since the discovery in the mid-19th century of its founding texts by thinkers that included Schopenhauer (one of the first to discover them in 1814, during his stay in Weimar with Goethe and his circle of friends). Buddhism's reputation spread across Europe, gathering pace deliriously in the 20th century as it reached North America and the whole western world.

I am trying to ascertain if this last rampart is falling in the face of provocations by the most extreme Islamism, or if we are witnessing, as in 1930s Germany, a racist phenomenon that could have terrifying consequences for Myanmar and compromise its infant democracy.

In both cases, I believe these events concern us all.

In the last decade, we have seen the progressive radicalization of Islam, with an impact as far afield as Bangladesh, where the government's initial moderation has given way to three successive refusals to restore the secularism principle that was one of the conditions of the country achieving independence in 1971. Frequent bombings and murders of bloggers bravely defending secularism are a curious reminder of events much closer to our shores, in Tunisia for example.

The Venerable W. at the border with Bangladesh

The four rows of razor-wire fences, built at certain points along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border to keep out Muslim economic migrants, provide another similarity with Europe. Buddhists living in the border regions have gradually been marginalized, and now constitute a minority that feels threatened by the new arrivals. The best informed and most objective outside observers acknowledge the validity of some of the Buddhists' claims.
As in my other films, I don't necessarily seek to provide answers to the questions I raise, but rather to listen to the arguments of those on both sides.

Director's Biography

Barbet Schroeder is a Swiss director born in Teheran.
From 1958 to 196 he takes part in Cahiers du Cinéma and Air de Paris
Assistant to Jean-Luc Godard on LES CARABINIERS
In 1963 he establishes the production company Les Films du Losange

2017 - Où en êtes-vous Barbet Schroeder?
2014 - Amnesia
2009 Mad Men S3/E12 - The Grown-Ups
2008 - Inju: The Beast in the Shadow
2007- Devil's Advocate Jacques Vergès
2002 - Murder by Numbers
2001 - Our Lady of the Assassins
1997 - Desperate Mesures
1995 - Before and After
1994 - Kiss of Death
1992 - Single White Female
1990 - Reversal of Fortune
1987 - Barfly
1984 - Cheaters
1982/84 - The Charles Bukowski Tapes
1977 - Koko, A Talking Gorilla
1974 - Maîtresse
1974 - General Idi Amin Dada
1972 - The Valley, Obscured by Clouds
1969 - More

Cast & Crew

Directed by: Barbet Schroeder

Written by: Barbet Schroeder

Produced by: Margaret Menegoz, Lionel Baier

Cinematography: Victoria Clay Mendoza

Editing: Nelly Quettier

Original Score: Jorge Arriagada

Sound Design: Florian Eidenbenz

Cast: Maria de Medeiros (small Buddhist voice)

Nominations and Awards

  • Documentary Selection 2017