More Australian photojournalists have criticised US media company, MGM, for ‘burying’ the North American release of Minamata, a feature film starring Johnny Depp as legendary photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith.
Celebrated photojournalist, Stephen Dupont, was the first to bravely stick his head above the parapet and support the film’s release despite #MeToo-style allegations against Depp. He’s since been joined by fellow Australians Jack Picone and David Dare Parker, along with Smith’s son, Kevin Eugene Smith, who said: ‘It’s absolutely shameful that MGM has acquired the rights to this very important film but not released it.’
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.
The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) has now published a series of articles interviewing photojournalists about Minamata, and the MGM controversy. The WSWS is news publication aiming to ‘unite the international working class’, and is founded by the International Committee of the Fourth International, founded in 1938 to revive Trotskyist revolutionary ideology.
At first it seems like an odd battle for the WSWS to have adopted. But it makes more sense after viewing the movie, as Smith embeds himself into what’s essentially a working class struggle against a powerful corporation. And this theme poetically carries on as the mighty MGM buries the indie film.
It’s a decent flick sharing a worthwhile story. Depp effortlessly plays Smith as a hardened yet tortured photojournalist, who self medicates his way from dingy New York jazz bars to Japan to help expose the horrors of industrial poisoning. Photojournalists – or even photographers, for that matter – are rarely the lead subject of a feature film, and it has been done with care and accuracy according to the seasoned photojournalists who watched the film.
Dupont felt Depp’s acting ‘captured the personality of Smith really well’, ‘I can imagine Smith being that kind of dark, broody, at times arrogant kind of personality’. Regarding the film being buried, Dupont called it ‘complete bullshit’, ‘the big picture here is the film, its story and the victims of the mercury poisoning. MGM shouldn’t be crossing that boundary’.
Picone, a Bangkok-based photographer who has covered the Rwandan genocide and other conflicts across the globe, is familiar with having worked censored. As the co-founder of Australia’s Reportage festival, Destination NSW refused to have public projections of images in Sydney due to them being ‘too distressing’ for an all-ages audience. Additionally, he notes how a documentary was made in 2019 about his return to Rwanda, and the filmmakers haven’t been able to screen it anywhere due to mistaken concerns it’s ‘about an old white guy in Africa telling his story’.
With this sensitivity fresh in his mind, Picone feared Minamata ‘might smack of the great white saviour going into an Asian culture to save them, but it was nothing like that’.
‘As you know, the original Minamata story was a collaboration, and the film shows that it was really Aileen [Smith’s Japanese wife and assistant/love interest in the movie] who approached Smith and gave him the idea to pursue this story when his career was receding and in a difficult place,’ he said. ‘These sorts of collaborations are the best because they bring different cultures and sets of ideas to the table so the story can be developed in a more three-dimensional way.’
Speaking generally about industrial poisoning, Picone highlights how corporations are using the same lies, greed and nefarious behaviour as Chisso to ultimately protect their bottom line. He recalls an assignment he shot from 2002 in Sulawesi, Indonesia, for German magazine, Mare.
‘It was about illegal gold mining going on in the mountains of Manado, with alarming amounts of mercury being used in the processing. The conditions for the miners were appalling,’ he said, ‘the mercury was being put in cesspits, but it leaked into the water table beneath those and then into mountain streams. It didn’t result in the sort of birth defects seen in Minamata, but there were many poisonings and deaths and miscarriages.’
Picone believes highlighting these issues are important, and far exceed whatever brownie points are scored by withholding a film involving Depp. ‘If you join the dots between when the Minamata story happened in the early ‘70s and 2021, corporate malfeasance and destruction continue to this day. This is bigger than a marriage breakup between a man and woman’.
Fellow Reportage co-founder and photojournalist, David Dare Parker, agrees with Picone that it’s ridiculous to withhold a film over a ‘train wreck of a marriage’.
‘Gene Smith was one of my heroes,’ he said. ‘I have the original Minamata book, so the movie brought all those black and white images back to life for me. I loved the film – the cinematography is extraordinary – and given the lack of publicity for it in Australia I was very lucky to see it in a cinema. I caught it in Perth the day before its last screening.’
Kevin Eugene Smith has been on a social media frenzy to try and bring attention to MGM’s actions and have the film released. He’s shocked none of the big media outlets have jumped on this story.
‘I used to be a television business reporter in Los Angeles covering Hollywood and would have been all over this story,’ he said. ‘Here’s a story involving a superstar, a takeover of MGM, a legendary brand, by one of the most powerful companies [Amazon] in the world. I’d compare it in some ways to Citizen Kane, although maybe not on the same scale, but you certainly have powerful interests trying to bury a film.
‘Why aren’t they covering this? Why aren’t they demanding answers from MGM and Amazon? Maybe it’s because the trade publications are too cosy with MGM and too reliant on them for interviews, exclusives and that sort of thing. Whatever the case, they’re stonewalling it.’
He speculates that because Amazon recently acquired MGM for US$8 billion, the media company might be attempting to minimise controversy leading to bad publicity as the deal plays out.
There is yet another 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.’
Fortunately for audiences outside of North America, including Australians, Minamata can be streamed online.