A few months ago we published a Five Favorite Photos article on W. Eugene Smith, master of the photo essay. I remember researching Smith’s adventures, which included photographing country doctors, secret jazz sessions, and an entire city (literally) and thinking, “Damn. Somebody needs to make a film about this guy.” Fast forward a few months and, what do you know, the guy’s getting his own biopic. Sweet.
Given the title of the upcoming film, Minamata will likely cover Smith’s last and some would say greatest photo essay of the same name. And this story seems tailor made for the big screen, a story of corporate greed, governmental complacency, personal tragedy, and tireless heroism.
When Smith and his Japanese wife Aileen heard of the horrific effects of illegal industrial waste dumping in Japan, they moved to Minamata and spent three years documenting the pollution and its impact on the local population. The resulting photo essay unshrinkingly demonstrated the horrors of mercury poisoning wrought by chemical waste pollution from the nearby Chisso Corporation’s chemical plant. The corporation had, for more than thirty years, dumped toxic methylmercury wastewater into the surrounding environment. There, it bioaccumulated in fish and humans, causing death and injury to thousands.
This pollution went largely unaddressed by the Japanese government and the Chisso corporation for three decades. Not until Smith’s photo essay was published did the wider world become aware of what was happening in Minamata.
For his trouble, Smith was beaten by Chisso Corporation thugs. So badly was his trauma that he suffered crushed vertebrae, severe crippling of his left hand, and varying degrees of blindness for the remainder of his life. The Chisso Corporation explained away his injuries, saying they were caused by cameras “swinging about his neck.”
For his part, Smith minimized his own injuries in comparison with those of his subjects. He instead focused on his crusade to publish the photo essay, even while he was penniless and in constant pain. With much help from his wife Aileen and others, Minamata was published.
Smith’s photo essay is often cited as a major driving force in the environmental awareness movement of the 1970s. The essay includes some of the most moving photos ever made by anyone. If ever an episode of Eugene Smith’s life deserved its own movie, it would be this one.
It goes without saying that a story as rich and tragic as this deserves better than to be over-dramatized or slapped together with little consideration toward its subject matter. While we don’t have a lot of info on this film yet, what we do know looks promising. The role of Eugene Smith himself will be played by Johnny Depp, a good choice considering he’s played complicated and artistic figures like Ed Wood and Hunter S. Thompson, and played them well.
The film will also feature strong cast of Japanese actors, none of which are named Scarlett Johansson, thankfully. This includes Japanese action stalwart Hiroyuki Sanada, Minami Hinase from the OG Japanese version of Battle Royale, Ryo Kase from Letters from Iwo Jima, Tadanobu Asano from the surprisingly good Zatoichi remake, and the great Jun Kunimura, who was most recently featured in The Wailing, one of the best horror films of this generation.
Minamata will be directed by relative newcomer Andrew Levitas, whose only directorial credit is Lullaby, a horror film released in 2014. The screenplay, written by David Kessler, will no doubt help Levitas along – it’s adapted directly from the Minamata book itself, written by Eugene and Aileen Smith. We’ll have to see whether or not Levitas can do justice to a story like this, but the single screenshot we have already looks promising. Depp’s face is shown in black-and-white with Eugene Smith’s same grizzled white beard, and he’s holding up – what else – a black Minolta SRT-101, just like the one Smith used on assignment. It’s a small detail, but it shows that Levitas and the crew have done some research, which bodes well for us photo geeks.
Biopics can be hit or miss, but we here at CP sincerely hope this movie can tell this story well, and give us insight into the life of one of photography’s most interesting characters. We’ll let you all know what we think of it when it releases, good or bad.