Australian photojournalist, Stephen Dupont, has criticised MGM for ‘censorship’ over blocking the North American release of Minamata, a feature film starring Johnny Depp as legendary photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith.
Minamata follows Smith, who has taken a final assignment from Life Magazine to help expose the industrial mercury poisoning of a Japanese fishing village by the Chisso chemical company.
Between 1951 and 1968, Chisso dumped thousands of tons of untreated wastewater into Minamata bay, poisoning local sea life and anyone who ate it. Residents began noticing illness among cats in the 1950s, and by 1956 humans began showing signs of poisoning. Smith arrived in Minamata in 1971 to start ‘arguably [his] most influential’ work, according to Magnum.
Smith became interested in travelling to the city after he was contacted by a member of the Minamata movement. He and his partner Aileen Mioko Smith packed up Smith’s loft in New York, travelled to Tokyo and, now married, relocated to Minamata along with their recently recruited assistant, Takeshi Ishikawa.
The couple planned to stay for three months but ended up staying three years. “Of course it was very sensitive, we didn’t go barging in,” says Aileen, who photographed alongside Smith on the project and co-authored the resulting book. “We lived there, got to know the people, and photographed. The victims were receptive; the feeling was: ‘We want the world to know’.”
And so it’s with irony that MGM silenced the film, a dramatisation of real events which is backed by The Eugene Smith Foundation and Minamata Foundation.
Minamata director, Andrew Levitas, said MGM senior management informed him that the media company ‘decided to “bury the film”’ over Depp’s alleged ‘personal issues’ relating to his marriage breakdown.
‘In re-exposing their pain in the sharing of their story, this long marginalised community hoped for only one thing – to lift history from the shadows so that other innocents would never be afflicted as they have… and it seemed in that moment, with MGM’s partnership, a decades-long wish was finally coming true,’ wrotes Levitas in a letter to MGM. ‘Now, imagine the devastation when they learned this past week, that despite an already successful global roll out, MGM had decided to “bury the film” (acquisitions head Mr. Sam Wollman’s words) because MGM was concerned about the possibility that the personal issues of an actor in the film could reflect negatively upon them and that from MGM’s perspective the victims and their families were secondary to this.’
Over the past five years Depp has been the target of a #MeToo-style cancellation campaign after his former wife, Amber Heard, wrote an op-ed claiming she was a victim of domestic abuse. Depp, denying all allegations, sued Heard for defamation, and the case is currently ongoing despite Heard’s attempt to have it thrown out. Unlike other #MeToo cases that reveal a pattern of abusive behaviour by powerful men, Depp and Heard’s messy public marriage breakdown, like many others, is complex. While observers feel sympathetic towards Depp, who has produced evidence suggesting he may also be a victim, Hollywood has dumped the actor.
Dupont told the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), an online publication dedicated to the ‘Trotskyist movement’, he really liked Minamata, and felt a personal connection as he won the 2007 W. Eugene Smith Grant for his work in Afghanistan.
‘Gene Smith was someone whose work I’d grown up with and, more than anyone else in my late teens and early 20s, inspired me to become a photographer,’ he told WSWS. ‘I was carrying that connection to Smith with me as I watched Minamata. I didn’t want to be too critical of the dramatisation – it’s not a documentary – but I felt Johnny Depp captured the personality of Smith really well – his movements, approach to photography, the darkroom work. I can imagine Smith being that kind of dark, broody, at times arrogant kind of personality, and Depp was believable and convincing.
‘I also learnt a lot more about Minamata and what happened and hadn’t realised that it kind of killed Smith in the end. I was quite shocked about some of these revelations. The film was an honest depiction.’
Dupont found the film to be a convincing portrayal of a photojournalists’ experience, including confronting trauma and dealing with PTSD, as well as shining a light back on a shameful event that was masterfully documented by a world-leading photographer.
As for MGM burying the film, Dupont feels it’s ‘complete bullshit’ it’s being withheld over unproven allegations against the lead actor.
‘The big picture here is the film, its story and the victims of the mercury poisoning. MGM shouldn’t be crossing that boundary. Don’t shoot the messenger is what I’d say. MGM’s response reflects the world we are living right now, which in my opinion, uses things like #MeToo and blows all sorts of allegations out of proportion. Any kind of negativities in people’s lives are seized on.
‘MGM is not just punishing Depp but everyone else, the other actors, the director, the cinematographer, writers, all those involved.
Even if the allegations were true, I wouldn’t change my opinion. With Depp what we’re talking about is a marriage breakdown, something that lots of people go through all around the world, the only difference is that they’re not celebrities. It’s a sad state of censorship in a far too critical world where, god forbid, if you say or do anything the wrong way, or make a mistake, and you’re crucified every which way. Let’s get these things into perspective.’
Brave words by Dupont!
Fortunately for Australians, Minamata has been released and can be streamed online via YouTube, Google Play, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime.