Film Review

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Review of Minamata (2020)
biographical drama
directed by
Andrew Levitas

Minamata film by johny depp
Minamata Film (2020) Poster | Lead role by Johnny Depp

Fragmented souls in a mercury-stained Pieta

Native Americans have a saying that photographs would take a piece from the subjects’ soul;

What gets left out of the fine print is that it can also take a piece of the photographer’s soul…

Eugene Smith, played by Johnny Depp, tells Aileen Smith (acted by Minami) as she nonchalantly seeks his consent to take a photograph. They are at a small fishing village in the Japanese city of Minamata to document the people affected by the Minamata-bay disease – a neurological disorder caused by the methylmercury biochemical waste released into the Minamata river and the adjacent Shiranui Sea, by the fertilizer company CHISSO between 1932 and 1968. “If you decide to take that camera… be very serious about it,” he tells her in a measured tone.

Disheveled. Painful. Shattered. Eugene appears way older and tired. Yet, his character displays a rather strange combination of callousness, seasoned by devout religiousness. Just a few scenes before this, Eugene offhandedly gives away his only camera to a boy affected by the disease. Apathetic, wry, and disillusioned, Eugene expresses his frustrations in pursuit of truth, and dozes off, as the boy walks away with the camera.

The first dialogue Eugene delivers in the movie is “I am done”. He is seen at his loft at 821, 6th avenue, New York. And then, even as he burns the midnight lamp in his darkroom, he goes on to rant about this and that. As the audience, we understand that he is living alone, working on his retrospective and that he is broke and hasn’t sent money to his children for a while.

The year is 1971, a mere few months before his 600-print retrospective, ‘Let Truth Be The Prejudice’, which ended up being his last exhibition while he was alive. In 1978, at the prime age of 59, Eugene died of a heart attack. His wild photographic excursions did strike a huge blow to his health, including two serious injuries, one while covering the invasion of Okinawa in 1945 and the second during a protest at Minamata in 1971.

The first injury grounded him for almost two years, a period during which he underwent 32 operations. One of his most famous images – an image that was way different than his usual – ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden‘ was shot during this time of forced sabbatical. This photograph of his children was the very first image he shot after two years of downtime.

Eugene didn’t take that many single images. An unequaled master of 20th-century photojournalism, he pioneered what later has become popular as photo essays. Telling compelling narratives through a series of images was a style that Eugene excelled par magnifica. On the contrary, ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden’ was a single image. It is visually striking and carries his intelligible styles – 35mm (remember Smith was fired by News Week in 1937 for refusing to use large format), well-orchestrated natural light, and a perfect composition that instinctively yanks the viewer’s attention to the center.

Yet, what makes ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden’ unique is the subject. This image is so down-to-earth, that everyone can relate to it. It has a certain gay and happy mood. It did not have the usual dramatic violence, suffering, and agony that had become his indelible marks (A few other series of Eugene such as the ‘Jazz Loft Project’ and ‘Dream Street Pittsburgh’ were exceptions to the general rule). One need not shudder while looking at ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden’. That’s why it became one of the most acclaimed images shot to date. Edward Steichen concluded his landmark photographic exhibition – titled ‘The Family of Man’ (1955) – at the Museum of Modern Art in New York with this image, skyrocketing its popularity to previously unknown heights.

We don’t get to see the faces of the children. It is a view from the back. In the film, one scene portrays Eugene insisting on his desire to photograph the face of a Minamata victim. He adds, “There is something about the eyes – when we see the eyes, we see truth…” However, faced with people’s reluctance, Eugene seeks and expresses truth elsewhere, and suddenly, the hands start speaking – not only the truth of their suffering but also that of thousands of others whose eyes are robbed of their sight. This is Eugene’s strength – revealing the hidden and hiding the obvious, joy shrouds the pain and pain becomes poetic. ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden’ hides more than it discloses, and in that, it becomes all too revealing.

Eugene did have a tough relationship with his five children – very much as the film portrays. Stubborn with a mind of his own, eternally broke, obsessively focused on work, and often drunk or high on drugs, Eugene’s genius also meant that he was eccentric and difficult to deal with. His family life was in a constant state of turmoil. He married twice, once to Aileen, and had quite a few relationships. He constantly fought and beliqueted, yet he was greatly loved – as many of his friends would reminisce, often with a pinch of glum. His thorny personality was a known fact.

Was it an act of self-sabotage, as popularly considered, or a trait of pure talent that was way ahead of its time? Avant-gardes, the ones’ who challenge the ongoing norms, seem to possess similar qualities – could these be the aftereffect of the indubitable scars left by the constant fight against established systems and structures? Professionally, this personality did cause quite a havoc. In 1954, Eugene quit Time over an argument about how they presented one of his images, a picture of Nobel prize-winning physician Albert Schweitzer. He did not want to make Schweitzer a saint but just show the real person. This was not the magazine’s preference.

It is not that Eugene was oblivious to his precariousness. At times he would rant about this, while the next moment he would laugh it away as if it did not matter. But, when the night gives way to the day, he would rise with all the usual vigor and trigger. However, Eugene was genuinely upset about his derailed relationship with his children. He was constantly nagged by his inability to provide for his family. At one point in the film, Ryoko Kamimura, the mother of Tokomo, asks Eugene whether he has a picture of his children. “No, Madam,” he replies.

Now, look at ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden’ once again. It is a father looking at his children, probably watching protectively, or for a moment, he became a child again, ready to run behind them and start playing. Did Eugene truly think that photographs take a piece of the photographer’s soul?

A Walk To The Paradise Garden”, W. Eugene Smith (1946)
The Walk to Paradise Garden, Eugene Smith, 1955

Minamata (2020), directed by Andrew Levitas begins with a glimpse of ‘Tomoko and Mother in the Bath’, shot by Eugene in 1971. As the image pans out, one can hear Tomoko’s mother Ryoko Kamimura singing to her daughter. The world stops for a moment…

This powerful image changed the world of editorial photography. It is simple yet deeply disturbing. It portrays love, not violence, but it is not the kind of love that would let you cuddle in your comfort zone. It is a love that would shake and stir things up. It would provoke and shift your axis. The photograph cuts a chord for several reasons. First and foremost, it wasn’t a half-baked, on-the-go shot. It was premeditated and had a gradual evolution based on Eugene’s developing relationship and familiarity with the people of Minamata. Remember, Eugene was connecting with their issue at the deepest possible level, living with them, and respecting their culture and values. He was approachable and down-to-earth and even took a beating while photographing their protests. The kinship, trust, and comfort expressed by Ryoko Kamimua was not an instantaneous response but built over a period. It demands commitment and time – an impossible feat to be achieved if one is all too preoccupied to produce a story within 10 days or 3 months for that matter. Eugene shot this image four months after he arrived in Minamata, and he would end up spending another three years, continuing to give a face and voice to their plight.

It was not unusual for Eugene to spend more time on a project. In fact, this was the sole reason for his descent with Magnum. The Pittsburgh Poject (‘The Dream Street’, 1955), the first assignment by Magnum, was meant to be a three-week assignment. Eugene spent a year creating 21,000 images, only a fragment of which has been published/exhibited thus far. As an intense person, Eugene is known to be fully involved in the life and suffering of people. He was not a mere witness, and took it upon himself to find a solution. And it is because of this, he ‘lost’ a part of himself every time he photographed.

That way, ‘Tomoko and Mother in the Bath’ is a masterpiece by Eugene, a pinnacle of not only his time at Minamata but of all his wakeful thoughts and sleepless nightmares. It is compositionally similar to the all too familiar Biblical scene of Jesus held by Mary. Instantly, Michelangelo’s Pietà and the feeling it aroused would cross one’s mind – it is a personification of suffering, compassion, unjust, love, and forgiveness. Eugene’s signature-styled dramatic natural lighting elevated this composition to further depths. However, the picture became sensational not only because it was a portrayal of suffering and love, but also because it was an intimate moment – only exposed to the closest of people. The image made us somehow closer to Tomoko and her family as if we are guilty of their pain and love.

It is unsure whether Eugene deliberately chose this all-too-familiar composition or was subconsciously drawn to it. For a photo connoisseur, unraveling the inner workings of a photographer is as important as the issue the photograph speaks about. The man behind the camera is the mystery to be solved. John Berger comments that the compassionate Mary and the suffering Jesus combo effect can be felt in several of Eugene’s images and that in some way, he has been embracing the identity of compassionate Mary, and photography was his act of compassion. This is one of the keys that we are looking for, and the film Minamata maintains a radio silence in this regard.

The image ‘Tomoko and Mother in the Bath’ received its round of criticisms. First published by Life (‘Death-Flow from a Pipe’, June 2, 1972), the image brought tremendous attention to the issue and even garnered an intermittent victory in favor of the victims (a judicial verdict that was not adhered to by the company and later revoked by the preceding government). However, the issue continued without any resolution and the image was republished several times by varied publishers over the period, making Tomoko the face of the Minamata disease. There was a general belief that Tomoko’s family was benefiting from this publicity, though that was not the case. But, a few members of the community showed their iron hand, criticizing and at times condemning them. In the late 90s, two decades after the passing of Tomoko, Aileen revoked permission to use the image, honoring the wishes of Tomoko’s family. Let her rest, the family had said. Instantly, the image became the centre of another debate, now questioning the ethics of editorial photography.

Consent was not the concern here. It was shot with the permission of her caretakers. However, it attests to the fact that subjects do have a voice and that it can change over the period. The viewers – the consumers – are obligated to listen to their whispers. Photography will always be tormented by this curse, for it often trespasses the zombie zone of reality and art. “You don’t ask before taking a photograph. It is like asking permission for kissing. You just shoot,” says Eugene. Tension builds, as this is the very core of the questionable ethics of editorial photography. The film averts this trial by Aileen kissing Eugene. However, the question remains – how did the filmmakers receive permission to shoot a movie based on an image that has been revoked from publishing and being reused?.

Isn’t this a violation?

Minamata victims shot by Eugene Smith
Minamata victims shot by Eugene Smith
Minamata victims shot by Eugene Smith
Minamata © Eugene Smith, 1971 | Due to Copyright restrictions, the image Tomoko and Mother in the Bath is not reproduced here | The film Minamata is available on Amazon Prime

The film Minamata premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 21, 2020, and has received mixed reviews since then. Nonetheless, it is a success in many ways. It provides a glimpse of this marvelous photographer and draws our attention to the continuing issue faced by the victims and their families from Minamata Bay. This movie is a reminder of the old times when camera had such a huge impact on resistance-movements and activism. It is also laudable since high-profile movies based on photographers are rare. In this regard, India has a long way to go.

Johnny Depp has done true justice in acting the enigmatic role of Eugene Smith, bridging his extreme personalities as a complex whole-wise. Self-centered. Unyielding. Adaptable. Callous. Determined. Unforgettable. It is Depp’s acting that holds together this jumbled-up movie that attempts to tell a lot within the two-hour timeline. The cinematography, music, dialogue, deliverance, and the sensible manner in which this sensitive subject has been handled are applaudable.

Minami’s acting is also another plus. Her unwavering gaze and presence suggest the contribution made by Aileen, as it truly was in real life, especially between 1970 – 1978, the years they were together. Aileen met Eugene as part of her summer job with FujiFilm. She was studying at Stanford, but shortly after this serendipitous encounter, she dropped out of school and moved into Eugene’s New York loft to assist in his retrospective exhibition. A year later, with the help of Motomura Kazuhiko, a Japanese photo editor, they took the retrospective to Japan. Motomura was a supporter of a kōhatsusurukai group that was fighting for the Minamata victims, and upon his suggestion, the couple traveled to Minamata.

It is here that the film deviates from the fact – it portrays that it was Aileen who calculatedly dragged Eugene to document Minamata. Also, the movie shows that Aileen learned photography while working with him on his retrospective. While staying in Minamata she was equipped enough to shoot on her own and shot many photographs, which were published in the book Minamata (1975) co-authored by the duo. Before ‘Tomoko and Mother in the Bath’ was taken, they had been married. This mismatch in timelines comes as a surprise. There is also a lack of information as to whether Life magazine’s editor Robert Hayes (played by Bill Nighy) commissioned/supported Eugene to cover Minamata or not.

Minor diffractions and romanticisations are a part of commercial movie-making. As John Berger pointed out in his article titled ‘Notes to help Documentary Film-maker Kirk Morris Make a Film about Smith’, to present Eugene, one must add a touch of fiction. Andrew Levitas has done that. Yet, it makes one wonder about the other misinformations and omissions. It is a consolation that largely the film has captured what really happened, probably zig-zagging a few events and conversations here and there, and adding a little bit of spice and romance to weave the moving story of both the Minamata survivors and Eugene Smith.

In Levitas’ words, the uplifting [Minamata] story of hope, passion, and community reminds us that alone we may be the parts per million, but together we are the millions. Yet, one cannot whiff away the feeling of something being amiss.

One wonders, what is this film about – was it intended to be a document of Minamata and its people? If so, it is a story of pain and loss, contrary to what Levitas wishes it to be. For, with CHISSO not upholding the verdict, the people still at Bay, and the image that had caused so much pain to Tomoko’s family being brought once more to the forefront, Minamata comes across as an outdated issue-based film, fishing for its share of commercial profits. It has the same tried and tested story of the Western media and its saviours saving the underprivileged and voiceless from disasters.

Or is Minamata a biographical-drama presenting Tomoko and her mother in the bath to untangle the life of this master photographer? Unfortunately, if that was the intention, the film is devoid of basic facts and has mismatched timelines and gaps. And the viewers are left with an unsolved mystery, that is Eugene Smith. Strangely, ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden’ seems to be better placed to unravel his enigmatic persona. Whether photographs steal a part of the photographer and their subjects’ soul is another matter altogether.

Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi

Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi is an independent writer and film-maker. She has more than a decade of experience working with leading National and International Non-Government Organisations in India, Africa, and South America. She is the Founder Managing Trustee of Ekalokam Trust for Photography and the Executive Editor of PhotoMail.

Published on December 20, 2022


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