Berlinale Exclusive Review: Minamata

Year: 2020
Duration: 115 minutes
Director: Andrew Levitas
Writer: David Kessler, Andrew Levitas
Starring: Johnny Depp, Minami Hiroyuki Sanada, Jun Kunimura, Bill Nighy

By Caz Armstrong

Some shocking visuals and a few knuckle-biting moments bring this true story of the Minamata poisoning exposé to life. But despite best efforts the white saviour positioning undermines the power of the film.

It’s 1971 and once well-regarded photographer W. Eugene “Gene” Smith (Johnny Depp) is at the end of his useful career and drinking too much. Haunted from photographing the horrors of WWII, he has annoyed his publishers too many times to get consistent work and is reduced to endorsing products he doesn’t use for money.

Late one night Aileen Mioko (Minami in her first English Language film) visits to beg him to come to Japan and cover the Minamata poisoning. A whole region is suffering from sickness and birth defects from the Chisso Corporation chemical factory pumping mercury into the water.

“Given this is a film about a photographer and his work, the use of grainy ‘historical’ footage and photographs is a great touch.”

Eugene’s photography magic is needed to bring this plight to the world’s attention and force change. Gene forces the issue with Life magazine boss Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy) and heads to Japan. He experiences a culture he’s not used to, pressure, bribes and guerrilla tactics from the chemical company as well as self doubt on his quest to get the perfect photographs that will save a city in time for the deadline.

202007041_1
© Larry Horricks HanWay Films

Given this is a film about a photographer and his work, the use of grainy ‘historical’ footage and photographs is a great touch. I’m not sure how much of this was recreated and how much was original but without these elements it would have been a much weaker film.

The costuming and set design was all carefully recreated using source photos, footage and first-hand accounts so the look of the film was incredibly authentic.

Colour is a strong theme in the first act, with the red safe lights in his studio or the cold blue neon light bathing him from outside the window. As the film progresses the importance of the black and white photography becomes clearer.

“This is based on a true story so it’s hard to unpick the truth of the facts from the telling of them. Because the story is told from the experience of a white westerner, we see Japanese culture through his eyes.”

Depp’s performance is less quirky than a number of his previous roles but it still had an unhinged alcoholic edge so in that sense not a total departure from what we’re used to from him. Some supporting actors seemed quite forced by comparison which is a shame for such an emotive film. I must also mention a lingering shot on a woman’s arse which was unnecessary and jarred with the more sensitive portrayal of bodies at other points.

202007041_5
© Larry Horricks HanWay Films

This is based on a true story so it’s hard to unpick the truth of the facts from the telling of them. Because the story is told from the experience of a white westerner, we see Japanese culture through his eyes. We’re being asked to identify with someone who finds this culture strange. Of course the culture is not strange to locals, but his experience of it is. For me, the film falls just the wrong side of empathising with a character’s experience and that experience being a given truth.

What if the story were approached more from the Japanese position? The facts don’t change but the perspective will. So the Japanese culture would be seen as normal and this he is a strange westerner that must be tolerated because his skills are required.

202007041_6
© Larry Horricks HanWay Films

Aileen’s impact was shown and she was key to bringing about change but she was very much a support in the way the story was told. Where he is treated as an influencer by the chemical company it presumably comes from a place of acknowledging his power to expose on the global stage. But this could be read as him having something as a white person that the locals don’t, even though they are organisers of a strong resistance.

Again it comes down to perspective on the facts not the facts themselves. If the distinction were made clearer it wouldn’t leave such a bad taste. A whole town gathering behind the scenes to donate resources to a man we have barely seen interacting with them was also a bit sickly.

© Larry Horricks HanWay Films
© Larry Horricks HanWay Films

The point the film raises about photographic exploitation for common good is interesting. Of course we get told the old adage about photographs taking your soul, but there is a deeper discomfort from the locals around being photographed.

While being respectful of this, Gene does understand the importance of showing faces and eyes in order to create empathy in the viewers. Empathy which is at times lacking in him.

If the locals’ discomfort had been given more than a cursory explanation it would have led to a much richer dilemma about respectful photography vs the urgency of bringing about life-saving change.

202007041_4
© Larry Horricks HanWay Films

Despite the setting this film feels very American. Although that doesn’t help the film particularly,  it might help in getting a message to a wider audience – like the premise of the story itself. And, despite the seriousness of the story and some very striking visual moments the foundations were too undermined for this film to sit right with me.

2 stars

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