Berlinale 2020: 'Minamata' Reminds of the Power of Photojournalism
by Alex Billington
February 22, 2020
It is always important to shine a light on stories that remind us of the power of journalism. Not only about all the hard-working, courageous people committed to reporting the stories, but also about the impact it can have on the world. It also goes without saying that photojournalism is just as powerful, if not even moreso sometimes. One image can change the world. This is the ultimate value of this particular film, and the true story it tells. Minamata tells the story of renowned American photographer W. Eugene Smith, who went to Japan in the early 1970s to photograph the inhabitants of a small town being poisoned by a careless, greedy chemical corporation that had a dangerous factory there. It's a very moving, earnest film about the power of photography and the tenacity of journalists. And it won me over big time, unleashing all kinds of emotions.
Directed by American filmmaker / actor Andrew Levitas (his second feature after making Lullaby), the film is based on a true story. The focus is entirely on the photographer, W. Eugene "Gene" Smith, played by Johnny Depp with eccentric hair and beard. By the time we catch up with him at the start, he's struggling, broke, and barely living a life in his apartment / developing lab in New York City. While he has lived an acclaimed life, and established a reputation as one of the greatest photojournalists to ever live, there's not much he cares about anymore. Until a Japanese woman invites him to Japan to document the atrocities in Minamata, a small town on the western coast of the southern part of Japan. Once there he not only connects with his handler, a young woman named Aileen played by actress Minami, but also with the local Japanese people – who live their lives despite the poisoning, while a few attempt to battle this powerful corporation.
On one hand, the film is story about how a hardened, jaded person can be softened by meeting people from other cultures. I love seeing stories about how lives change when people spend time in other countries, when they get to understand and interact with locals from a whole other world. It's always inspiring. On the other hand, the film is about a photographer and how his work can really make a difference. He is battling his own demons and trying to work through them to make an impact on the world in his own way. It's a bit cliche, and the film is a bit campy at times, but that didn't bother me. I was caught up in it, seriously affected by the story being told, and by the way it's being told. Depp is good in this, but he's outdone by all of the Japanese actors - Minami as his confidant Aileen is extraordinary, with remarkable performances from Tadanobu Asano (one of my all-time favorites), Hiroyuki Sanada, Jun Kunimura, Ryô Kase, and Akiko Iwase.
The film also features gorgeous cinematography by DP Benoît Delhomme, and one of the best scores I've heard this year so far by legendary Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. It's so intricate and touching – an important part of the film; it's used powerfully at certain times, and subtly others. The film is sometimes heavy-handed and just a bit cheesy in its Hollywood-style storytelling, but I'll be damned if I didn't love it. I admit it. The score is to die for, just ravishing. There's something wondrous and yet compellingly authentic about the film that pulled me into it, and wooed me completely. Perhaps it's because I'm a photographer I connected with this particularly story more than most. And perhaps it's because I also adore Japan and the Japanese people. Whatever it is, I'll defend this film and sing its praises, it doesn't deserve to be dismissed.