Documentary photographer Jack Picone calls on MGM to liberate Minamata in North America
The following is the second in a series of discussions with renowned photographers and others on Minamata, a new drama directed by Andrew Levitas. The 115-minute film deals with the industrial poisoning of fishing communities in Minamata, Japan by the Chisso Corporation and the struggle in the early 1970s by renowned photo essayist W. Eugene Smith (Johnny Depp) and his marries Aileen Moiko Smith (Minami Bages) to expose this corporate crime.
Minamata has been released in several countries, where it has received very positive reviews, and will begin screening in French theaters this week. Its Japanese premier took place late last month in Minamata, Kumamoto prefecture, and in the first four days of its nationwide release, it was watched by more than 41,000 people.
While MGM purchased the North American distribution rights to the film after the latter’s international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in early 2020, the studio has not released. Minamata in all North American theaters.
Last July, company executives told director Levitas that the company was “burying” the film because it was “concerned about the possibility that the personal problems of a film actor [Depp] could negatively affect them. Depp has been subjected to poisonous #MeToo allegations in the Murdoch media and elsewhere and recently accused Hollywood studios of “boycotting” him.
While MGM claims that Minamata, completed at the end of 2019, is on a list of upcoming releases, he refuses to say when such a release could take place. It is a scandalous attack on everyone involved in the production of the film, including Aileen Moiko Smith, co-author of the book it was based on, as well as the victims and families of those poisoned by the Chisso. Corporation.
Jack Picone, a multi-award-winning, Australian-born, Bangkok-based documentary photographer, is one of many photographers angry at MGM’s deletion of this passionate and intelligent film.
Picone worked for approximately three decades in various war zones, spanning eight wars in the 1990s, including Armenia, Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, Palestine, Iraq, Liberia, Sudan, Angola and what was then Soviet Central Asia. He is a co-founder of the REPORTAGE photography festival in Australia and his work has been published by Time, News week, Release, Der Spiegel, The Express, Granta, the Independent and the Observer.
In 2013, the REPORTAGE festival was censored by Destination NSW, the tourism authority for New South Wales, which blocked the planned public showing of images on two large screens near the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. The show featured footage from many leading international documentary photographers – James Nachtwey, Jodi Bieber, Francesco Zizolla and many more – as well as local photojournalists. The direction of the tourist authority judged that the images were “too distressing” and not “family” and should not be diffused.
Picone recently spoke to the WSWS by phone from Thailand and started by chatting by Minamata artistic forces and its contemporary significance. This is an edited version of our conversation.
Jack Picone: A lot of films about journalists and photojournalists are too fictionalized and one-dimensional. Minamata was not that at all and was as close to the real thing, within the scope of creativity and artistic license to make a dramatic film, as any documentation of that story could get.
Richard Phillips: What struck you the most?
JP: I was a little worried that it might sound like the great white savior entering an Asian culture to save them, but it was nothing like it.
I am a little sensitive to this kind of thing because I covered the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and a few years later a documentary [Rwanda: Beyond the Swamp. directed by Fiona Turner (2020)] was done on my return there. The filmmakers were award-winning people, and it was an objective film – there was no such thing as a “white savior” – but they couldn’t go anywhere with it. The rejections were based on the idea that it was an old white man in Africa telling his story. This was the reaction in New York and San Francisco, and it couldn’t be projected anywhere.
As you know, the original Minamata story was a collaboration, and the movie shows that it was really Aileen who approached Smith and gave him the idea to continue this story as his career receded and in a difficult place. . These types of collaborations are the best because they bring different cultures and sets of ideas so that the story can be developed in a more three-dimensional way.
Johnny Depp, as Smith, was not a hero as such in the story and the film shows him as a troubled character who had to be convinced to get involved in the project. There was a dynamic of collaboration, with the common goal of telling the story and holding companies like Chisso accountable for what they did. I was familiar enough with the original story, to have read it early in my career and then studied it in depth later for my PhD. I also loved the way it was filmed, the desaturated color, like an old color negative.
RP: You have worked for many years in war zones. Were these flashback scenes convincing?
JP: Yeah, and the blue filter effects and flashbacks had reality sharpness, but were pretty minimal. It could easily have gone in a cliché direction and just been Depp playing the war trauma Eugene Smith went through. [Director] Levitas could have focused heavily on this, but he didn’t.
Of course, this problem should not be minimized. I went through the same thing after Rwanda for years and almost got drunk from the things I saw and photographed. It’s real, but the movie kept its balance and focused on the bigger story, which was the plight of the people of Minamata.
That’s why I think the issue with Depp and MGM’s failure to not release the film in America is wrong. I think Johnny Depp’s alleged irregularities are out of place and not nearly as big as the industrial pollution from businesses that has caused untold suffering and scores of deaths in Minamata. Similar crimes still occur today.
If you join the dots between when the story of Minamata happened in the early 70s and 2021, the embezzlement and destruction of businesses continues to this day. It is more important than a marriage breakdown between a man and a woman.
We don’t even know what happened – it happened behind closed doors – and even if it was really bad, is that reason enough to kill this story? Depp was not convicted of anything. How is that a reason for what MGM is doing? Do they have another agenda? Is it #MeToo or something even more nefarious?
RP: You mentioned the ongoing industrial pollution by large companies. The film ends with a drop-down list of these crimes.
JP: Yeah, in some ways it had a bigger impact on me than the whole movie. It wasn’t as if someone had just pricked my skin with a pin, it was as if they had stuck a knife in my heart. Businesses keep doing it – the same lies, the same greed, the same nefarious behavior, all in the name of making more money and at all costs.
The Chisso company polluted the sea around Minamata and, as we know, the ocean is a thermostat for the whole world. When you pour all that crap, it alters the delicate and complicated balance of the ocean and raises the temperature, which in turn is directly linked to global warming. Now we have agrochemicals, plastics, mining and other things that end up in the world’s oceans.
I did a mission on mercury poisoning in Sulawesi [Indonesia] for Mare, a German magazine, in 2002. It was about illegal gold mining in the mountains of Manada, with alarming amounts of mercury used in processing. The conditions for the miners were appalling. The mercury was put in cesspools, but it seeped into the water table below them, then into mountain streams. This did not result in the kind of birth defects seen in Minamata, but there have been many poisonings, deaths and miscarriages.
RP: Eugene Smith says photography is a small voice, but it can sometimes bring about a gradual change.
JP: He was right. Documentary and photojournalism during the civil rights movement in the United States helped mobilize people for Martin Luther King’s speech at the Abraham Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The researchers also established that the images of the Vietnam War were a catalyst, not individually but in collaboration with other journalists, and turned popular opinion against the war.
The other quote from the movie that I really liked was Smith’s statement about Native Americans who believed that if you took their picture, you captured their soul. Sure, I knew that, but I loved the way Smith extends that and says it takes part of the photographer’s soul as well.
Many photographers suffer incredible trauma when placed in war situations or something like Minamata. Not everyone does — Philip Griffith Jones was a little dismissive — but James Nachtwey told me he was in great pain. It exists and people often forget it. I’ve been told that the camera is like an emotional shield, but not for me. In fact, the camera was like a microscope into the hurt and pain I was documenting, tattooing it into your memory and calling it back at the worst possible times.
PR: Minamata also establishes and revives the idea of what a serious photojournalist should be.
JP: Eugene Smith worked in a very immersive way. There was a balance of power between him and those he photographed, he was very ethical in his approach.
Aileen Moiko, of course, is the reason the whole Minamata Project happened. She had a lot of creative input and was a co-author of the original story. She gave birth to him. It’s almost like she’s the architect and Eugene Smith is the designer, and a really good one at that.
While photojournalism is for a variety of reasons extremely compromised today, Smith’s approach is still possible as long as you can find a way to fund it.