Evil, “Venerable,” and Otherwise: An Interview with Barbet Schroeder

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Unlike the Tibetan Buddhists surrounding him in India, the Tibetans in Lhasa don’t much like the Muslims near there, but they never engage in any genocidal talk. The monks want an answer from the council on whether Wirathu is acting according to the words of the Buddha—yes or no. In America, the jury system would give me trouble. Like so many others, I was, of course, in favor of Aung San Suu Kyi. I’m like the Friends of Christ, who never judge! SCHROEDER
Unfortunately, although journalists have tried to find out more about these cronies, it’s very difficult. No, the evil in each of these three men was only part of their personality, part of their humanity, and that was a terrible discovery for me, terrifying. It implies the death of God. INTERVIEWER
Did your experience with the real-world villains of your trilogy inform how you would conceive and shape the antagonists in your narrative films?  
When did you hatch the idea for your Trilogy of Evil? I believe this so much in my life that, if you asked me to be on the jury of a film festival, I would refuse it. INTERVIEWER
In the trilogy, you let Amin, Verges, and Wirathu profess their toxic opinions unchallenged. I just don’t like to judge. I will mourn it forever. His play   Paradox Lust   appeared off Broadway, his   fiction has appeared in   Open City, and his heart is in the Highlands. They have sent a question to the Supreme Council, which has the ultimate authority over the monks. The Venerable W completes Schroeder’s rogue’s gallery with a portrait of the title figure, a monk in Myanmar named Ashin Wirathu—or “W,” as Schroeder refers to him. Just today I was speaking about this with my friend Fernando Vallejo, the great Colombian writer whose novel Our Lady of the Assassins I made into a film. They might say things in private, but to attack a fellow monk in public is generally not done. For me, this is the red line. This ambiguity is fascinating to me. They had just discovered democracy. Economic boycotts, riots, house burnings, mass rapes, internment camps, and murders—there’s little that the Rohingya haven’t suffered. INTERVIEWER
Were there noticeable similarities between Idi Amin, Jacques Verges, and Wirathu? SCHROEDER
I learned that evil can’t be separated from humanity. She’s personally supervises a Facebook page that claims the stories of rape against Royingha women are fake, that the Royingha are burning their own houses. SCHROEDER
Yes, and this was especially so with Wirathu, who has been frequently attacked by journalists. SCHROEDER
The Dalai has definitely been a voice against. The next situation that came along was with the Khmer Rouge, who were then ruling Cambodia. This is the problem. But the bad thirty percent are everywhere. SCHROEDER
I would say that it’s about thirty percent. But I couldn’t find the money to do that movie, and I haven’t recovered from it yet. INTERVIEWER
Was your nonconfrontational interview policy in place from the beginning of your work? The council has been put on the spot. It’s only when you dig deep and try to understand the implications and effects of their words that you discover the reality. You never contradict them during the interview process, you never argue or ask embarrassing questions, although you do feature other interviewees arguing strenuously against those views. Schroeder was able to leave Myanmar with life, limb, and footage intact, but he is banned from returning there. SCHROEDER
When I first arrived in Burma, she had just been elected, and it was a very festive country then. Obviously you’d rather let your subjects condemn themselves with their own talk. This council, by the way, is controlled by the military. Even with my fictional movies, I don’t judge the characters. Personality quirks, I mean—“tells” that they had in common? Or a part of the reality, because I don’t pretend that I can discover the ultimate reality of people. Schroeder was wise to try to keep his work in Myanmar a secret: the military authorities would not be pleased with him if they noticed him and his filming. Of course, that’s the famous thirty percent. So the money flowing in and out to Wirathu cannot be traced—it’s more efficient than Bitcoin. SCHROEDER
Absolutely. It surely didn’t sound like his wonderful documentary about Koko the sign-language-using gorilla, either. Labeled by Time Magazine as “The Face of Buddhist Terror,” the deceptively sweet-faced and gentle-cadenced Wirathu has, since the start of this century, preached hatred against his nation’s Muslim minority, the Rohingya. Given Schoeder’s talk of far-flung travel, this new clandestine project of his didn’t sound to me like a big-budget thriller in the vein of his Single White Female. INTERVIEWER
What are your thoughts about Aung San Suu Kyi? I immediately wanted to go on doing the same thing with different people. The second was Terror’s Advocate (2007), which focused on Jacques Vergès, the Parisian attorney who represented international terrorists such as “Carlos the Jackal” and Nazi murderers like Klaus Barbie. Or would it delve into a new subculture, as he did with the drug-drenched underworld of Ibiza (More), the S   and M subculture of Paris (Maitresse), or Charles Bukowski’s down-but-not-entirely-out Los Angeles (Barfly)? INTERVIEWER
Like the thirty percent or so who are pro-Trump, no matter what? He said, Evil is the soul of man and civilization seeks to control it and does not succeed. And there are usually thirty percent that oppose them, and thirty percent in the middle who “don’t know.”
Who “don’t know” or are totally apathetic. Still, there is the beginning of a movement—a group of monks who seem to intend to tone down Wirathu a little bit. It would not have been a movie about a bloody dictator but about a utopian dictatorship. Could Schroeder’s new work be akin to his French-language Obscured by Clouds, in which he led his cast and crew deep into the jungle of New Guinea?  
Gary Lippman is a lapsed lawyer and former Fodor’s travel writer. At the time, the Khmer Rouge were surrounded by the Vietnamese, and everybody thought they would be eliminated. INTERVIEWER
Have any prominent Buddhists spoken against Wirathu? Pretty soon they discovered Facebook, too, and seventy percent of the population—even people who can barely read—is now on it. She took a leading part in the propaganda machine destroying the Royingha. INTERVIEWER
What lessons have you learned from making your films about evil? SCHROEDER
Right off the bat with Amin, yes. SCHROEDER
With Idi Amin Dada, the results were so fantastic—I couldn’t believe   the material I was getting. Everything looks pretty normal. One person who could have been a trilogy subject was Claus von Bülow, in my film Reversal of Fortune. Worse, Myanmar’s   military leaders and its Nobel Peace Prize–winning figurehead head of state, Aung San Suu Kyi, have exacerbated rather than eased the widespread oppression. INTERVIEWER
In The Venerable W, you intriguingly mention “the cronies”—wealthy Burmese citizens who apparently finance Wirathu’s campaign of hatred. Despite the grim subject matter, or perhaps to counteract it, Schroeder was congenial and charming. The Rohingya, whose ancestral home is Bangladesh, constitute only   4 percent of Myanmar’s population. Through a contact in Thailand, I had the possibility of speaking to them. Also terrifying was my realization that you can meet evil people every day and fail to notice them. So if you attack him, he’ll know where you’re going. Instead of trying to save a country, you put it under water, beneath any moral standard, beneath any respect. SCHROEDER
You had thirty percent of Chileans for Pinochet and you had thirty percent for Hitler—you always have thirty percent. Normally you should “follow the money,” but in Burma there is no way to do this because their money always comes via donations to the temples, and the temples need these donations to exist. She’s made a compromise that’s too big—like Pétain, when he tried to “save France” by working with the Nazis but eventually had his police rounding up France’s Jews. SCHROEDER
Right. The first film in the trilogy was 1974’s General Idi Amin Dada, a “self-portrait” of Uganda’s colorfully bloodthirsty despot. He knows all the bad things that one can say about him. They are careful not to offend people. But are you also concerned that, if you challenge them, they’ll clam up or moderate what they say, or simply walk away? Unfortunately, they did notice—and weren’t pleased. Now that the fruit of Schroeder’s sub-rosa labors has screened to acclaim at this year’s New York Film Festival, I have my answer:   The Venerable W is the final installment in Schroeder’s Trilogy of Evil. SCHROEDER
That would be saying that evil marks everybody the same way. When you meet the film director Barbet Schroeder, whose distinguished career has spanned more than five decades, and you ask him about his next project, you should not be surprised to hear a response like the one the intrepid auteur gave me two years ago, at a New York City cocktail party: “Next week, I plan to fly somewhere far away and do something dangerous—too dangerous to talk about with anyone until it’s finished.”
Born in Tehran, in 1941, to a Swiss father and German mother and raised mostly in Paris, Schroeder has been one of world cinema’s most protean figures, changing forms and themes and settings relentlessly, so who could divine what he’d do next? It’s not as if there is a big flashing light next to their heads. I thought she was a very clever politician, navigating around the military, and I believed that eventually she would succeed. “The Lady” has done exactly that. Last week, just before Schroeder left New York for the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico, I spoke with him (not at a cocktail party this time, but by phone) about The Venerable W and its place in his filmography. INTERVIEWER
Are there anti-Wirathu Buddhists within Myanmar itself? The project would have been a film in French in which their leaders would talk about their memories of their time at universities in Paris—which cafés they went to, what were the anti-colonialist movements of the period. SCHROEDER
It’s not in the Buddhist temperament to push back vocally against anyone. INTERVIEWER
What percent of the population holds anti-Royingha sentiment? First they overlooked it, then they permitted it, and now they’re actively excusing and encouraging the tragedies. Unfortunately, the truth has come out. There you have a character who could be evil, or could be totally innocent.