'Irradiated' Filmmaker on Four-Year Journey Exploring Genocide

"[Cinema] is a way for me to remind people that we must take care of ourselves," says Rithy Panh.

"People are still saying they were not aware of the Nazi camps. So it is very important to show people what happened," says the Cambodian auteur.

Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh has never hidden from the horrors of his past. His escape from the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields of the 1970s that took at least 2 million lives has been explored meticulously across his 30-year career.

In films such as the Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture (2013), Panh, now 55, has tried to piece together memories that are often patchy, even shattered by the brutal nature of what he saw and heard, and the director readily admits to using the process as part of a continual search for closure.

That process has led him to his latest documentary — Irradiated — which makes its world premiere Feb. 28 in competition at the Berlinale. It’s an exploration of the very nature of evil, revealed with harrowing effect through images of genocide, revisiting the death and despair of Hiroshima, Auschwitz and beyond.

The concept first came into focus during conversations with Marceline Loridan-Ivens, the French author, filmmaker, actress and Auschwitz survivor who passed away last year at age 90 and who encouraged Panh to tackle the subject matter "without fear," he says. Panh says there were times over the four-plus years it took to piece the project together that Loridan-Ivens’ words drove him on, and he spent hour upon hour immersed in the very worst that humanity has done to itself.

Talking to The Hollywood Reporter by phone from Paris, where he was still putting the final touches on the film, Panh discussed the origins of the project, the toll the subject matter took on him and why cinema is a form of therapy.

Can you talk about how this concept came about, this focus on the effects of evil?

It’s been developing for more than four years. It started first when I met Marceline and we talked about how we felt. She was a very dynamic woman, strong and very positive. But when we talked, we both realized that sometimes we felt that something inside us was broken. It's like we carry death with us. I told her that I don’t know how, but I would like to make a film about this. I don’t know what has happened over the past century. Why have there been more and more massacres, more killing, more genocide? What has happened to human beings? We talked about how to film this. How do you do it and not make it obscene? She encouraged me, and that gave me hope and confidence.

What about the style you chose? For most of the film, the images are presented in triptychs, and it almost becomes like an installation piece.

There was so much footage to look at, so in the end I decided to pick up only images that have an echo in me. There has to be an echo there for me and my story and what happened to me. But it is very difficult to make a film about genocide. We needed to find a form, a way to express it. I found the triptych screen very appropriate for that. The three screens allowed me to do what I wanted. It’s like an immersion, like you are being immersed in the individual image. We needed to find a way that would make people stay and watch it.

And given the nature of what we are seeing, watching the film is a challenging experience.

You have to watch it one time, two times, three times. And we say that in the narration. It’s like an art form, and maybe that will help you watch it. Art is there, and cinema is there, and together they can help you to watch things that you refuse to watch, that you refuse to consider. ... Things now move very fast. We have too much information, images and lies. The lies stay when the truth is forgotten, which is dangerous. People are still saying they were not aware of the Nazi camps. So it is very important to show people what happened.

Is the film also a reaction to fears about what you see around you in the world today?

I am not a pessimist, but things have gone worse now in the world. We have more weapons, more and more intolerance, more and more racism and xenophobia. This is from Europe to Asia, from north to south. When big countries fall this way, small countries also fall this way. You see Nazis marching again and you have to ask: What is happening?

What was the effect on you personally, having seen more than we end up seeing on the screen?

Oh my. It was too much sometimes. People who worked with me to create the archive would say that it was too much, that they were sick. There are very cruel images, very sad images. They are strong and very dark. But we were learning history over the four years we worked. I took notes but tried not to write too much. How do you take subjects like these and make them accessible? That is the task I set myself. You can become fascinated by horror. So I needed to be very careful. I needed "art" to be present. I needed "cinema" to be present.

What role does cinema play in forcing us to sometimes confront things that maybe we don’t want to confront?

For me, cinema is a way of speaking and a way for me to cry out loud about something. It’s a way for me to remind people that we must take care of ourselves.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 23 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.