CANNES, France, May 24, (AFP): Barbet Schroeder spent months with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin at the height of his power, when corpses would wash up every morning on the shores of Lake Victoria and Kampala was rife with rumours that he was eating his opponents.
But in his decades of documenting evil, the veteran Swiss filmmaker says he has never been as scared by anyone as he was by a Burmese Buddhist monk named Wirathu.
“I am afraid to call him Wirathu because even his name scares me,” the highly acclaimed director told AFP. “I just call him W.”
“The Venerable W”, his chilling portrait of the monk who has been accused of preaching hate and inciting attacks on Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority, has been hailed by critics at the Cannes Film Festival as a “stirring documentary about ethnic cleansing in action”.
What dismays Schroeder is that Wirathu, whom Time magazine dubbed “The face of Buddhist terror” in a 2013 cover, is utterly unfazed by the chaos and suffering he has unleashed.
Buddhism is supposed to be the philosophy of peace, enlightenment and understanding, he thought.
It helped centre Schroeder’s own life when he made a pilgrimage to India to follow on the path of the Buddha 50 years ago to “cure myself of my jealousy”.
But the hate speech and fake news that Wirathu spreads from his Mandalay monastery, accusing Muslims — barely four percent of the country’s population — of trying to outbreed the majority Burmese, made Schroeder’s head spin.
“He is much more intelligent and in control of himself that I thought, devilishly clever in fact,” said Schroeder, who shot his film secretly in Myanmar until he attracted the attention of the secret police.
“It was like being faced by a good Jesuit or some very clever communist leader back in the day,” he said.
Rather than “question him like a journalist”, Schroeder just let the monk talk as he did with the other subjects of his “Trilogy of Evil”, which began with “General Idi Amin Dada” in 1974 and includes his 2007 film “Terror’s Advocate” about the French lawyer Jacques Verges, who defended Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie and Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
“If you wait long enough, slowly the truth would come out,” Schroeder said. “That is what I did with Idi Amin and Jacques Verges.”
“When he lied I’d say, ‘Tell me more, how interesting… So the Rohingya burn their own houses so they can get money from the United Nations…’”
“For me one of the most shocking moments is when he says they destroy their own houses, and then you see a crowd of maybe 3,000 people fleeing their burning homes. It’s nightmarish.”
In another telling scene Wirathu, leader of the Buddhist nationalist 969 movement, is shown watching Muslims being beaten to death in Meiktila near Mandalay in 2013, a month after he gave an anti-Muslim speech there.
Schroeder said the monk had returned “all peace and love” to the town to call for calm, “but he was at least indirectly responsible for what was happening.”
“Wirathu said all this happened because a monk was killed by the Muslims. But I read the pamphlet that sparked the riots and it sounded very much like his speeches and that he could have written it.”
This month, Wirathu — who has been called the Buddhist Bin Laden — stirred tension by touring Muslim areas in troubled Rakhine State despite Myanmar’s top Buddhist body banning him from preaching in March.
Hundreds of Rohingya Muslims died in 2012 when sectarian violence ripped the state apart, and tens of thousands still languish in fetid displacement camps.
More than 70,000 have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh since October after the military launched a months-long crackdown that UN investigators say cost the lives of hundreds of the persecuted minority and may amount to crimes against humanity.
No place on Earth is more devoted to the “auteur” filmmaker than the Cannes Film Festival. Directors are hailed with minutes-long standing ovations, while movie stars parade a gauntlet of flashbulbs on the red carpet.
But as much as attention is lavished on the so-called “above-the-line” talent, the little guys — the below-the-line contributors on a film — are usually either unseen or totally absent. Yet one film in Cannes, “Filmworker,” pays tribute to one of the hardest-working, least well-known collaborators to perhaps cinema’s greatest visionary.
The film, directed by Tony Zierra, is about Leon Vitali, the longtime right-hand man to Stanley Kubrick. Despite his uncommon proximity to Kubrick and his significant contributions to the director’s big-screen artistry, Vitali was — until “Filmworker” premiered — an almost entirely unsung figure in movie history.
Even more remarkable is how he came to be Kubrick’s trusted assistant. Vitali was an actor with a notable and growing career whom Kubrick cast him as Lord Bullingdon, the snotty son-in-law of Ryan O’Neal’s title character, in “Barry Lyndon.” It was Vitali’s biggest role yet — a career breakthrough — but what most interested him was learning more about Kubrick and his craft.
After spending some time in the edit suites of his next films, Vitali convinced Kubrick of his seriousness. And just like that, he more or less gave up his acting career and dedicated himself for the next two decades to working with Kubrick. He didn’t leave his side until the director’s death in 1999.
With slavish devotion, from morning until midnight (and often beyond), Vitali worked as a jack-of-all-trades for Kubrick. Vitali did everything from coaching actors, overseeing restorations and catering to the taskmaster filmmaker’s obsessive instructions — including setting up a video monitor so that Kubrick could keep an eye on his dying cat.
“I made one truly, truly radical change in my life and that was when I said ‘I’m more interested in that’ than I was in the acting,” Vitali said in an interview sitting outside a Cannes hotel. “That’s the biggest conscious decision I’ve ever made. There were some sacrifices, but there were gains too.”
Salma Hayek laid into Hollywood sexism on Tuesday, saying the system treats actresses like performing monkeys and wants rid of them once they realise they are smart.
The Mexican star of “Frida” and “Desperado” lambasted the “macho” attitudes of Tinseltown, where fewer than seven percent of films are made by women.
“Hollywood is not going to change and give it to women because it is all guys,” she said.
“From the beginning I realised I wasn’t being treated equally as an actress,” she said during a talk at the Cannes Film Festival.
“It is true that maybe if you are pretty you can get parts easier but it’s really violent to assume if you are pretty you are stupid.
“Hollywood’s particularly macho. If they realise that you are smart, their anger gets multiplied,” Hayek said.
To many movers and shakers young actresses are playthings, she claimed.
“It’s very violent, this natural force to try to suppress. That is why we have a problem with women behind the camera as directors and producers,” she told one of the “Women in Motion” forums she organises each year at the festival.
Despite being a soap star in Mexico, Hayek’s climb up the Hollywood ladder was far from easy.
“Imagine, I came not only as a woman to Hollywood but as a Mexican Arab. People would laugh at me for having the dream of being able to work in Hollywood,” said the actor, whose father is Lebanese.