“It’s Always Very Troubling to See How Evil Can Seem So Convincing by the Good Manners of Who’s Explaining It to You”: Barbet Schroeder on his “Trilogy of Evil”
Four feature documentaries directed by Barbet Schroeder form the centerpiece of this year’s To Save and Project series at the Museum of Modern Art. Schroeder’s documentaries, some screened here in newly restored versions, have been difficult to see, especially three short ethnographic films scheduled for January 4 and 9. The Venerable W, his latest feature, will receive a week-long run from January 4–10.
An actor and producer as well as director, Schroeder was an influential figure in the French New Wave, particularly as a producer for Eric Rohmer. He has directed several fiction features, including the Oscar-winning Reversal of Fortune and the Charles Bukowski story, Barfly.
Released in 1974, General Idi Amin: A Self Portrait (Jan. 5, 8) provided the first intimate and comprehensive account of the ruthless dictator. Schroeder collaborated with cinematographer Néstor Almendros on that film and his next feature documentary, 1978’s Koko: A Talking Gorilla (Jan, 4, 8), which has become a milestone in the struggle for animal rights.
Screening on January 5 and 9, the award-winning Terror’s Advocate (2007) uses the career of lawyer Jacques Vergès to examine ties among international terrorists over the past half-century. Densely packed, and marked by chilling interviews with Vergès, the documentary ranges from the battle for independence in Algeria through Pol Pot, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Carlos the Jackal, and Klaus Barbie — an underground history of chaos and violence.
The Venerable W, which screened at Cannes in 2107, forms the third part of Schroeder’s informal “Trilogy of Evil.” Focusing on Buddhist leader Ashin Wirathu, the documentary shows how anti-Muslim sentiment has been nurtured by both religious and political leaders in Myanmar. By preaching against the Rohingya Muslim community in particular, Wirathu has helped instigate violence against hundreds of thousands of victims of discrimination.
Schroeder spoke by phone with Filmmaker about his documentaries prior to the opening of To Save and Project.
Filmmaker: Were you involved in the restorations?
Schroeder: I worked on the restoration of Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait and Koko: A Talking Gorilla. Unfortunately, the producer of Terror’s Advocate has not funded a restoration. Once you restore a film originally shot on 16mm, the results are fantastic. You see a big difference, they look better than ever.
Filmmaker: Do you see the films differently now than when you shot them?
Schroeder: They stay very close to me, I know them quite well, and I enjoy them enormously. Actually Idi Amin Dada is the one movie that I’ve seen so many times because I had to. Every time I enjoy as much — I never get tired of it. None of those movies was edited in less than six months. The Venerable W we even pushed to nine months of editing. That’s completely different from documentaries you see on TV because editing is such a big expense.
Filmmaker: That may account for why your documentaries are so dense with information, so layered.
Schroeder: That’s exactly what I want to say. It makes you feel more the narration of the images when you spend the time editing. You’re assembling a narrative.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about collaborating with Néstor Almendros on Idi Amin and Koko?
Schroeder: He was one of the greatest. We were always looking for the most natural photography, and he was always coming up with ideas. Actually, the greatest scene in Idi Amin Dada is when he is sitting on the roof of a boat, when he talking to an elephant and describing the landscape. That was a request from Nestor. He couldn’t film down in the interior, it was too dark. He said, “I’m sorry, I have to ask you all to go upstairs.” So I had to ask His Excellency to get up on the roof. It went perfectly, and we got one of the best scenes in the movie. That’s a perfect example of a great cameraman collaborating, not being to afraid to ask for crazy stuff.
Filmmaker: The temptation is to laugh at Idi Amin because he’s a clown, but he’s so dangerous at the same time.
Schroeder: Actually I wanted Idi Amin to feel completely at ease. So whenever I felt like laughing, I would. Completely. The more he saw me laughing, the more he was laughing himself. So you see that was the dynamic of the relationship. Some people have had fun on the Internet putting together a montage of Trump and Idi Amin, where Trump says “I’m very intelligent” and then Idi Amin says the same thing, and so on. There is a comical aspect to those characters. And you laugh. But in reality, you laugh with anxiety.
Filmmaker: Idi is very confident about himself, he knows how to play to the camera.
Schroeder: Everything you said applies to Trump too. He knows how to handle an audience, he has an incredible presence on the camera. With Idi Amin, I felt that I had a superstar actor. You can feel the presence of his personality on the screen, an incredible presence and charisma. That’s what made him a success, I would imagine. That also made the success of Trump. He is a one-man show who can deliver in front of his selected audiences, deliver something they love.
Filmmaker: I’m astonished at how you convince people like Idi Amin or Jacques Vergès to let you film them.
Schroeder: I don’t come as someone making a documentary for television. I don’t come as a journalist. I come as a filmmaker who doesn’t want to judge. Who just wants to understand. I make that very clear, and the rest is — I don’t know.
Filmmaker: Like Graham Greene and Henri Cartier-Bresson, you seem to be drawn to danger and unrest. What is pulling you?
Schroeder: Just my personality, I guess. When I make a documentary, I want to find out more about a person. So it’s not about an abstract subject, it’s about a person. I find if I try to understand better, I will discover things that will be interesting.
Filmmaker: Or the subject could be an animal, like Koko: A Talking Gorilla, a film that anticipates the animal rights movement. Watching the film now, it seems as if Penny Patterson, Koko’s handler, is being unconsciously cruel, punishing Koko simply for being a child.
Schroeder: Right. Well, there are two reasons for that. One is the fact that it was actually very dangerous, what Penny was doing. She had to keep control. The other reason of course is a cultural thing, where she was bringing her own persona and upbringing into this relationship.
Filmmaker: Was it dangerous for you and Néstor to be filming inside Koko’s space?
Schroeder: Not very. There is always a risk of something turning bad. And if something turns bad, you have a person in front of you, Koko, who has twice your strength.
Filmmaker: How close physically were you to Koko?
Schroeder: Very close, but it wasn’t a problem. I’m just saying once you are locked inside something can happen. It’s better that the person who was control over Koko is in there with you.
Filmmaker: With Terror’s Advocate, you’re working with an enormous canvas, using lawyer Jacques Vergès to cover some 50 years of politics.
Schroeder: It’s an immense work, not only the story line, but collecting all the different people. The scope of course goes from the beginning of the modern-day terrorism until the day where the movie was shown. Afterwards of course the story goes on. The idea, the vision, was to show the other side of contemporary history, like the Balzac book L’envers de l’histoire contemporaine .
Filmmaker: I lived through that period of terrorism in the 1970s, but I never understood how all these different sects and operatives were tied together.
Schroeder: It was very important to understand that, but like all the documentaries I do it was also important to find: where is the drama? Where is the dramatic story? A quick example of how I do that is the love affair between Vergès and Magdalena Kopp, who also happens to be the wife of Carlos the Jackal.
Filmmaker: So in pulling the story together, how important is your editor? On Terror’s Advocate and The Venerable W, you worked with Nelly Quettier, who edited your fiction feature Amnesia, as well as titles like Holy Motors and Happy as Lazzaro.
Schroeder: Basically, in documentary, if you’re really working creatively with the editor, that person becomes the co-writer, the co-director, the co- whatever you want. We had such an incredible experience on Terror’s Advocate that I went back to her for The Venerable W.
Filmmaker: So many incidents in Terror’s Advocate could have been features on their own. You find all these angles and elements to Vergès, he becomes this fully fleshed-out character.
Schroeder: Yes, absolutely. Here, same as Idi Amin, I have a first-class performer, a first-class actor to lead the movie. That’s so important, the presence on the screen of what I call the star, the main actor. Vergès is definitely very entertaining, intelligent, and scary at the same time.
Filmmaker: What is it like filming someone like Vergès? Can you sense his true feelings?
Schroeder: No, you never can. He’s always on show. That’s why I opened the movie with his denial of genocide in Cambodia. When he says there was no genocide, or tries to diminish it, the audience gets a chill right off the bat.
Of course I am not agreeing with him. But I think it is interesting to see how these perverse political things can be presented in such a normal manner, in a normal, routine, matter-of-fact manner. It’s always very troubling to see how evil can seem so convincing by the good manners of the person who’s explaining it to you. If you’re not warned you may fall for it.
Filmmaker: But in your documentaries I think you’re careful to point out when your subjects are lying.
Schroeder: Or [to] let the public deduce that.
Filmmaker: You give your subjects enough rope.
Schroeder: That was always the purpose.
Filmmaker: What persuaded you to go to Myanmar for The Venerable W?
Schroeder: Because I read about a genocide that was in progress, according to a study by the Yale Law School [Persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, 2015]. Reading that I was totally appalled and very depressed. I decided I had to find one of those Buddhist monks who was preaching discrimination. The most charismatic, the most intelligent possible, and make a portrait of him. I had to do the exact same thing that I did with Idi Amin Dada, Jacques Vergès, and so on. Make another movie about that.
Filmmaker: So you approached Ashin Wirathu is a similar way?
Schroeder: Yes, as a filmmaker. I told him I wanted the French people to understand what was going on, that the French would be interested to find out about policies that were going to be applied in their own country. That was because it looked like Marine Le Pen was going to be elected president, and she had exactly the same ideas as he did. She wanted special laws against the Muslims like he did. So if I could make a movie that could explain his point of view, the French public would be interested. Unfortunately, as of last week, it may be true again for the next election in France.
Filmmaker: Again in Wirathu you’re filming someone who is a brilliant performer, who knows how to manipulate his audience.
Schroeder: Exactly the same as Vergès. No, those guys are devils. They’re very, very clever, very intelligent, know exactly how to say things at the right moment. So it’s very impressive and super scary of course.
Filmmaker: How much did you know about the situation before you started?
Schroeder: I knew generally there was going to be a genocide, that people were preparing for that. When we got there I discovered that the details were much worse than I had imagined.
Filmmaker: This is also an immense story. How did you arrive at a structure?
Schroeder: The same as I started with Vergès denying genocide in Terror’s Advocate, I thought it would be good to start with Wirathu saying something absolutely awful and anti-Muslim, with a smile. That’s exactly what I did. Then as a viewer you cannot believe what you are seeing, you want to find out more details.
Filmmaker: You wait until about halfway into The Venerable W to show clips from a 1978 documentary, Operation Dragon. It essentially refutes all the points Wirathu had been making.
Schroeder: They tell you all the time that the Rohingya don’t exist, that they are a recent invention, that they are really Bengalis, and then I suddenly come up with proof from this documentary for French television about how the Rohingya have been chased from their lands, burned out of their homes, 300,000 of them.
You are suddenly in this big flashback, and you realize that this discrimination has been going on a long time, and that it’s going to happen one way or another. No matter what.
So because of the attention of the world, the Myanmar authorities have had to offer to accept back the 300,000 refugees. But now it’s much worse because their villages are burned and they will be moved to these camps. Most of the Rohingya will never want to come back anyway.
Filmmaker: You include horrifying footage of violence against the Rohingya. Where did it come from?
Schroeder: Very simple. We live in the time of the iPhone. And whenever something awful happens to you, you will get your iPhone out and you will film it. And if it’s truly outrageous, you will try to give it to someone who will spread it around. So I had access to people who are distributing those clips that initially were made by the victims. And on the ground I was meeting people, some people were coming to me saying “I’ve got stuff for you” and so on. It’s organic, it builds up with relationships. One of the big helpers of the movie is Fortify Rights, an absolutely extraordinary organization. They were a big help.
Filmmaker: How did you shoot Wirathu’s sermons? He’s making these incendiary statements in front of huge crowds, and you’re right there.
Schroeder: We had these two cameras, 4K resolution, so small they could fit in a handbag. We didn’t need any lighting, and we had super-expensive German mics. So we were completely free, we were able to look like a couple of tourists.
Filmmaker: Did you think you were in any danger?
Schroeder: At one point, yes. At one point I got a text telling me they know exactly what you are doing, and they have a pile of photos of you filming. So then I thought that maybe it was the time to go. [laughing] When they said “they,” that was the military police. So this was no joke. At the time I didn’t really realize how dangerous it was because I was thinking that The Lady [Aung San Suu Kyi] would protect me in case I got in trouble. Little did I know that she was going to be the one sending journalists to jail, journalists from Reuters just doing their work. [Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on December 17, 2017, while reporting on the massacre of ten Rohingya in Rakhine. In September, 2018, they were sentenced to seven years in jail.]
Counting on the protection of The Lady was totally absurd, I was really naive. It took a little time for me to understand that. Once I was doing the editing and accessing her Internet site where she repeats fake rape claims and the “proof” that Rohingya are setting fire to their own homes, then I could see that she is cooperating heavily with the military propaganda. If you listen her Singapore speech, she acts like she’s just trying to do good, she’s just trying to have the constitution changed for the best. She’s trying to get all the Rohingya back in the country, they’ve already constructed “houses” for them.
That’s why I think you learn so much from making this kind of movie. You realize to what extent those in power can lie and try to fool you about their action and goals.