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Barbet Schroeder • Director

"One of my principles is to never judge"


- CANNES 2017: We met up with Barbet Schroeder to talk about his fascinating documentary The Venerable W., unveiled as a special screening at Cannes

Barbet Schroeder  • Director
(© M Petit / Festival de Cannes)

With The Venerable W. [+see also:
film review
interview: Barbet Schroeder
film profile
, shown as an official selection special screening at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, Barbet Schroeder paints an edifying portrait of a Burmese Buddhist fanning the flames of anti-Muslim nationalism.

Cineuropa: How did you find out about the existence of Wirathu, and why did you decide to make a film on this “W.”, who is actually far from being venerable?
Barbet Schroeder: It’s ironic. I stumbled across him by chance while reading articles about Buddhism, and I came across something that talked about the Buddhists’ possible role in the start of a genocide in Myanmar, in the Rohingyas’ region. I was so shocked to imagine that Buddhism could be associated in any way with the most heinous of crimes, that I realised I had to leave right away and try to find out if I could make a film. I found it interesting to study the ambiguity and try to understand it.

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What was your first impression when you met W.?
I realised that he was a lot more intelligent than I had suspected, and a lot craftier and more diabolical than I had thought.

How did you present your film project to him?
I told him the truth – that I thought it was important for the whole world, since there was a general trend towards this type of hatred, this type of scornful treatment of minorities, which could trigger terrible bouts of violence as a last resort, whereas the words at the outset are very often masked and understated.

By retracing the life of W., you familiarised yourself with the whole body of ideological theory he has appropriated.
As is so often the case in matters of racism, you come across books that keep rearing their ugly heads, that reappear down the generations. In this case, there is a book in which you find the themes contained in all of the racist pamphlets and speeches. And of course, all of the extremists today have their Facebook posts and take advantage of that medium in a very efficient and dangerously useful way. In contrast, in the film we show that in 2003, when W. is responsible for a riot in his home town, at that time there were only pamphlets that were distributed in the markets, and they were the things that served to fan the flames. And then, ten years later, you’ve got the internet...

How did you manage to intertwine this portrait of a man with that of a country, which must have represented a vast and complex amount of material to grapple with?
It involved nine months of editing, and there were 300 hours of material that we not only had to watch and sift through, but also translate. It was a mammoth task, but totally fascinating because I always think that the more you dig into a specific situation, the more you arrive at the universal. In this case, I got to Trump and Marine Le Pen by studying an obscure Buddhist movement in Myanmar.

Why does the subject of evil hold so much interest for you?
It doesn’t hold interest for me in itself; I’m not fascinated by evil, but I was interested in the act of understanding it and making people see that very often evil is concealed beneath good-natured exteriors, behind masks. I made a trilogy on evil because I wanted to show different aspects of it, as I think it’s been a subject of paramount importance to humanity throughout the ages, and we have therefore not finished discussing it yet. And for me, a non-black-or-white approach is the best one to adopt – an ambiguous approach is what gives you the best results. One of my principles is to never judge, and all of my films are founded on this principle. Obviously, you can’t come out after watching my movie without being left aghast, so it’s very difficult to imagine a viewer who would not pass judgement at the end. But I haven’t tried to “programme” this judgement.

How would you define the three instalments in this trilogy of evil?
General Idi Amin Dada is about absolute power, dictatorship. Then I had a project about the Khmer Rouge, the utopian dictatorship, but unfortunately that didn’t make it into a film. Terror’s Advocate [+see also:
film profile
is the story of indiscriminate terrorism ever since its inception, through a character who was a key lynchpin. And now, with The Venerable W., it’s the use of religion, with something that brings to mind 1930s Germany.

You are a Buddhist yourself. Did your plan to make this film make you question yourself?
No, because I think that the word of Buddha is marvellous and profound, and it has a universal value, like a true treasure of humanity. But his word has been distorted by this Mr W., as also happens in the other religions, for sure.

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(Translated from French)

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