Hollywood production company, MGM, has abandoned the North American distribution of Minamata, a Eugene Smith biopic with Johnny Depp starring the heroic photojournalist on his last great assignment. Italian-based production company, ILBE (Iervolino & Lady Bacardi Entertainment), will instead release Minamata in North America theatres from December 15.
It has been a long and rocky road to arrive at this point, after MGM acquired the rights to the film but chose to ‘bury it’. Here’s an excerpt from previous Inside Imaging coverage:
It’s not entirely clear why MGM ‘buried’ the film, which is a dramatisation of Smith’s last official assignment documenting the mercury poisoning of a Japanese village committed by the Chisso Corporation. While MGM hasn’t addressed the seemingly endless delay Minamata director, Andrew Levitas, claims MGM senior management attributed it to Depp’s ‘personal issues’. The actor is embroiled in a rather public marriage breakdown with actress Amber Heard, who called out for actor for alleged domestic abuse resulting in Depp suing her for defamation. It’s worth noting there are no criminal charges or convictions against Depp, and many feel the messy marriage breakdown ain’t worthy of the #MeToo movement.
But forget criminal charges or a body of evidence, as this is cancel culture we’re talking about. An allegation is all it takes to have the Hollywood elite wincing at the thought of potentially enabling yet another abuser’s alleged actions. And so North American audiences, one of the biggest entertainment markets, cannot view this biopic about this legendary photojournalist.
There is a poetic parallel between the real story of Eugene Smith and Minamata, and the film’s current censorship. In 1972 while Smith was covering a protest at Chisso, six men likely affiliated with the corporation severely beat the photographer and left permanent injuries including partial blindness. According to the New York Times, Smith didn’t press charges because ‘he did not want to divert attention from the crusade to get Chisso to concede its moral and financial obligations to the victims’.
In that article he describes the life-altering assault, which contributed to his death in 1978, as ‘that damn beating’.
‘It gets all the publicity, and I think it can be use against the Japanese, who I love,’ he said. ‘But really and truly, all I want is to get my Minamata book done. None of this stuff about “dying with his boots on” or “he was a photographer until his dying day”. We just must finish that book.’
Speaking with the Sunday Times, Depp provides his take on the matter: ‘We looked these people in the eyeballs and promised we would not be exploitative. That the film would be respectful. I believe that we’ve kept our end of the bargain, but those who came in later should also maintain theirs. Some films touch people. And this affects those in Minamata and people who experience similar things. And for anything… For Hollywood’s boycott of me? One man, one actor in an unpleasant and messy situation, over the last number of years? But, you know, I’m moving towards where I need to go to make all that… To bring things to light,’
The World Socialist Web Site published a series of articles interviewing an impressive selection of Australian photojournalists, with the likes of Stephen Dupont, Tim Page, Jack Picone, David Dare Parker, as well as Eugene Smith’s son, Kevin Smith, discussing Minamata and the film’s cancellation.
It’s unclear what happened behind the scenes for ILBE to pick up the distribution but Minamata director, Andrew Levitas, is happy with the result.
‘I am thrilled that North American audiences will finally be able to learn about what happened and continues to happen in Minamata and around the world,’ he told Hollywood industry publication, Deadline. ‘The silencing of marginalised voices and those left behind (as well artists) by large corporate behemoths has to end, and with new like-minded partners this story will finally come to light in North America and hopefully offer some peace to the victims and their families who have been put through far too much.’
ILBE has partnered with Sam Goldwyn Films for the release. The two companies are much different to MGM, with ILBE focussed on Italian productions, art house/independent films as well as web series; while Sam Goldwyn Films similarly focuses on independent and foreign films.
It seems like a better fit for Minamata, which grossed US$1.6 million at the box office according to IMDB. Although this figure is hampered by the fact it hasn’t been released in North America, one of the largest markets for entertainment.