Buena muestra de ello lo tenemos en la mítica revista Life, por desgracia, desde abril de 2007 solo existe en versión web. Su éxito se debe a haber sabido aunar arte con la información de lo que estaba pasando, dentro y fuera de los Estados Unidos más la reivindicación y el activismo ya sea en un sentido medioambiental o social.
Lo define muy bien el propio W. Eugene Smith, protagonista de El fotógrafo de Minamata.
“A photo is a small voice, at best, but sometimes — just sometimes — one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness.”
(“Una foto es un susurro, en el mejor de los casos, pero a veces -solo a veces- una fotografía o un grupo de ellas puede atraer a nuestros sentidos hacia la conciencia”).
— W. Eugene Smith, 1974
(W, por cierto, de «Wonderful» -maravilloso, genial-, según una broma que él mismo decía).
Esta película, que tiene una clara similitud con el bestseller Era medianoche en Bhopal (Dominique Lapierre y Javier Moro) que narra el accidente de la planta química de la empresa Union Carbide en la ciudad india de Bhopal en 1984, nos habla además de una fase muy humana.
Como el de alguien que, después de triunfar, ya sea por desidia, problemas físicos o mentales cae en la dejadez y casi en el olvido. Como le sucede al propio Eugene, que vende la mayoría de su equipo fotográfico para poder ir sobreviviendo día a día.
Está tan asqueado que, incluso en plena Minamata (Japón), llega a regalar su cámara a un joven afectado por el vertido de mercurio. Un joven que, pese a todo el sufrimiento físico (y psicológico), se obsesiona con la fotografía, quizá viendo su verdadero valor, y le pide a Eugene que le enseñe, llegando a crear una profunda relación en la que pocos gestos, pocas palabras, son suficientes.
Sin embargo, una vez vistas la injusticia, los peligros y el intento de soborno de los altos directivos de la Corporación Chisso al propio Eugene Smith para que no siga con el reportaje fotográfico, hacen que éste vuelva a involucrarse del todo con su trabajo, arriesgando una vez más su vida.
Se implica de tal manera que llega a ponerse al frente de las protestas, logrando vencer la timidez, desidia e incluso miedo de la población local para hacerles partícipes (protagonistas) de sus fotografías y que sean “la voz” al mundo de una nueva tragedia medioambiental y sanitaria.
Otro acierto del film son las secuencias introspectivas, insertadas en el metraje sin interrumpir el buen ritmo narrativo, donde vemos el horror del personaje de Johnny Depp en la guerra del Pacífico durante la IIGM.
Así llegamos a comprender la situación y complejidad del personaje de Depp, quien, como señalan en la nota de prensa, <<se mete en la piel de William Eugene Smith, uno de los más reconocidos reporteros fotográficos del siglo XX, considerado por muchos como uno de los padres del ensayo fotográfico moderno y uno de los fotoperiodistas más venerados de la Segunda Guerra Mundial. W. Eugene Smith fue reconocido internacionalmente por sus impactantes e íntimas imágenes en la línea de frente del Pacífico durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial (durante la cual sufrió lesiones graves) o las fotografías en las zonas rurales de Carolina del Sur>>.
A partir de ahí cayó en una espiral de dejadez, posiblemente provocado por el horror vivido en el frente, que le llevó prácticamente a la ruina, hasta que le llegó su obra cumbre. <<Su ensayo fotográfico final, creado durante una asignación de tres años, de 1971 a 1974, en la ciudad costera japonesa de Minamata. Su población ha sido devastada por el envenenamiento por mercurio, resultado de décadas de negligencia industrial. Allí, Smith se sumerge en la comunidad y recupera la ilusión por su profesión y con su cámara capta las imágenes que darán la vuelta al mundo>>.
A la notable interpretación de Johnny Depp le acompañan las igualmente destacables actuaciones de Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano y las breves apariciones de Bill Nighy, quien, junto a Depp, vuelve a regalarnos brillantes actuaciones en la pantalla. Todas ellas comedidas y complejas, por la historia real y tan trágica que están representando en una película con momentos tensos, momentos crudos, sin filtros ni cortapisas, pero también momentos entrañables.
Momentos entrañables, sin sacarnos de la historia por ser forzados, como cuando Gene le enseña algo de fotografía al joven gravemente afectado por el mercurio, ayudándole con la cámara, o el momento de la toma de la icónica imagen, Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath (el baño de Tomoko Uemura), en Minamata (Japón), que este 2021 cumple 50 años.
©EUGENE SMITH. LIFE MAGAZINE 1971
El fotógrafo de Minamata, que A Contracorriente Films estrena en España el próximo 30 de abril, previo paso por el BCN Film Fest donde fue presentada por Johnny Depp, es un filme que recomendamos sin lugar a duda.
Se nota el logradísimo resultado final por el mimo que tanto Johnny Depp (uno de los productores además de protagonista) como el director Andrew Levitas quisieron darle. Ambos, fascinados con el proyecto, se volcaron en todos los aspectos de la producción. Llegaron incluso a capturar sonidos ambientes reales en Minamata; a usar dos tipos de carretes, Kodak para las partes en EE.UU y Fuji Film para las partes en Japón y recrear cuidadosamente los interiores en estudios para asemejarlos al estilo de vida en el Japón de esos años.
Os dejo a continuación extractos (en inglés) del dossier de prensa, entre los que se incluyen comentarios de Johnny Depp y de Andrew Levitas que merecen la pena leer.
“I’ve been a fan of Gene Smith’s for a long time,” says Andrew Levitas, director of Minamata. “As a fine artist, as an educator, as a photographer, as a filmmaker, he’s just one of those guys you engage with.”
Eugene Smith was internationally renowned for his striking and intimate images, from those captured on the front lines of World War II’s Pacific campaign (during which he suffered major injuries) to his visual profile of a midwife working in rural South Carolina. However, Smith’s most important, impactful and influential work was his final photo essay, created during a three-year assignment, from 1971 to 1974, in the Japanese coastal city of Minamata.
Smith was approached by a woman claiming to want to talk to him about shooting a commercial. This was Aileen Mioko (who he would eventually marry) who asked him to join her in documenting this fishing community and on the ground “Minamata Movement”, a group fighting the injustice of the pollution of the region’s waters by a Chisso Corporation chemical factory for decades. This had led to thousands of cases of mercury poisoning among the local people, who had caught and eaten toxic seafood, but during the previous three decades neither Chisso nor the Japanese government had acted to stop the pollution. It was only in 1968 that the government officially recognized “Minamata Disease” as resulting from it.
During their time in Minamata, Eugene and Aileen became a part of the people of Minamata’s story as they told it in real time. They lived in a house rented from the family of one of the victims. They travelled by bus with the campaigners to the trial. Smith, already suffering from his mortar-fire injuries from the war, was even severely beaten by Chisso hirelings during a confrontation at the corporation’s Goi factory, and as a result suffered blackouts and temporary blindness in one eye.
Gene and Aileen befriended and sensitively took hundreds of photos of the people of Minamata, living with their illness, living their lives, protesting and campaigning for compensation.
But one photograph made a greater impact than any other. Taken in December 1971, Tomoko in Her Bath showed a parent tenderly bathing her Minamata Disease-stricken daughter. This black-and-white image is not only considered Smith’s greatest photo, but its stark revelation of the physical impact the illness had on people also drew international attention to the Minamata Movement campaign.
Johnny Depp was already very familiar with Smith. “For many years I’d had a bit of a fascination with him,” says the actor. “I knew Mary Ellen Mark very well. She was a photographer at Magnum for a while and had known W. Eugene Smith, so I asked her about him because I admire his photos. She told me how he was this curmudgeonly but ultra-sensitive sort of Bohemian, a hardened war photojournalist who had seen it all. Then she told me this great story about him. His sense of humour was such that, when he was asked, ‘What does the W stand for?’ he would say, ‘Wonderful.’” Depp laughs. “W. Eugene Smith. Wonderful.”
With his passion for photography, Eugene as one of his heroes, and the Minamata story holding such resonance in the current world, taking the role in Minamata was, for Depp, “a no-brainer.” But he was keen that the project be developed “to the point where we can really tell this story properly,” and he wanted to bring on board collaborators who, he says, “would bring a new energy and diversify the language for this film.”
FINDING THE HEROES
Despite the significance of W. Eugene Smith to the Minamata narrative, it was crucial to all involved that the film would accurately portray the events and individuals involved. It wasn’t merely important to highlight the crucial role played by Aileen — who is still very much active today as an environmental campaigner and executive director for Green Action (Japan) — but also the people of Minamata themselves as ultimately it was they who courageously fought and continue to fight this fight.
In September 2018, Levitas and the production team travelled to Minamata. “We met with some of the surviving victims and their families,” says Levitas. He was incredibly impressed by their resilience and generous spirit. “This is a community that has had to fight for itself for a very long time and when we asked permission to make the film, they didn’t think of themselves, they thought only of others like them around the world without voice and the need to come together and make certain something like this could never happen again. It was just incredible.” So as he took on development of the script with Infinitum Nihil executives Jason Forman and Stephen Deuters, he was keen it did them justice as much as it told Smith’s story. “There are hundreds of heroes in this story,’ Levitas explains, ‘and it was imperative to me, that the narrative structure of the film served the essential truth of the story – that Eugene, while fully engaged with the community, was a documenter and accelerator of events – not a driver. He is our way in but ultimately as the two stories weave in and out, it is the Minamata community story, the local one about people on the ground fighting to be heard, which needs to slide forward and become the definitive A-line”… “In the final 25 minutes of the film Depp says less than 25 words total… It’s quite remarkable that Johnny so graciously supported and 100% leaned into that strategy,” Levitas says.
The correct casting of these core roles couldn’t have been more crucial. “If you’re making a true story set in Japan, you really have to keep your casting authentic,” says Sarkar.
Finding the right actor to play Aileen required an extensive and challenging search. “We auditioned so many talented actors to play this role,” reveals Levitas. “It’s a difficult role. Her life experience is so specific. To find a young woman who could do justice to the role and express all the right things seemed impossible. We looked for months and months. Then when it seemed I would never find our leading lady, a tape from Minami arrived, it was immediately clear. We met in London and in the meeting Aileen was there.”
Though Minami has been acting since her debut appearance in Battle Royale (2000), Minamata is her first English-language movie. “I didn’t think I could play a part in English,” she admits. “For me it was the only challenge. I wanted to act in English because I’d never done that before. I wanted to fight with me and win,” she laughs.
“Minami is a phenomenally multi-talented artist, and she has such a staggering presence on screen,” enthuses Sarkar. “She brought intelligence and real fire.”
For Minamata’s second hero, one of Japan’s most internationally well-known performers was approached. “I’ve been a giant fan of Hiroyuki Sanada’s work for many, many years,” says Sarkar. “When we found out he was interested, I was over the moon because he really was somebody, I had envisioned being one of these characters. As it turns out, he very closely resembles one of the activists from that time, although his character is a composite of different real people.”
“I play Mitsuo Yamazaki, a leader of the activists, who helps the families, helps the patients, and tries to fight against the company and the government,” says Sanada, star of such movies as The Last Samurai, The Wolverine and Avengers: Endgame. “He is a leader and a messenger to the world. He has global thoughts: we should stop this now because otherwise it will happen again everywhere in the world. I’ve enjoyed researching the real people, while also trying to create an original character. It’s an interesting job for me.”
The third of Levitas’ heroes is the activist Kiyoshi, also a composite character, played by Ryo Kase (Letters From Iwo Jima, Silence, Bel Canto). “Ryo does some phenomenal, very sensitive work in this movie, and he has a few really shocking moments,” Sarkar explains. “I don’t want to spoil anything, but on the days that we shot them, it was electrifying.”
Then, of course, there is Depp as W. Eugene Smith. “I’ve known Johnny for 30 years. I started working with him on 21 Jump Street as an extra,” says Sarkar. “I’ve spent most of my life watching him create all these great characters: Edward Scissorhands, Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, Hunter S. Thompson in Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas, and George Jung in Blow, which is one of my favourite performances of his. But it’s been fun on this movie to watch someone I’ve known this long really surprise me. Sometimes with simplicity, sometimes with humour, and sometimes with raw emotion. Gene was a tragic, troubled person. His editor described him as the most difficult photographer LIFE magazine ever had, and Johnny brings all those qualities at just the right moments. His Gene might not be an exact, word-for-word impression of Gene Smith, but it is the soul of Gene Smith.”
Says Depp, “I hope it’s as accurate a portrayal of Gene as I was able to glean from all the information that I’ve read, and from talking to all the people who knew him — certainly, Aileen. He was complex, you know? Kind of a madman, kind of a genius; a total, lawless, bohemian coming into a culture that is so calm, serene, and peaceful. He is a ticking time bomb. He did not want to feel. He had such pain inside that he would do everything he could to escape the feeling. But I think Minamata opened him up again.”
Rounding out this impressive cast are veteran actor Jun Kunimura (Audition, Ichi The Killer, Kill Bill: Vol. 1) as the head of the Chisso Corporation. “We didn’t want him to be a typical corporate villain,” says Sarkar, “and Jun brings an amazing gravity that brings a little bit more nuance” and British stalwart Bill Nighy as LIFE’s editor-in-chief Robert Hayes, who long suffered Gene Smith’s cantankerous nature. Nighy and Depp had worked together before on the first two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. “There’s a really great dynamic between them,” says Sarkar. “It was really fun to watch that.”
WARNING THE WORLD
When W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Mioko Smith published their photo essay as a book in 1975, it was titled: Minamata: A Warning to the World. The creators of Minamata hope their film might be seen in the same way, too.
“The moment this film captures, it was so dynamic, and it helped birth the modern environmental movement,” Levitas asserts. “But this sort of thing continues to happen. We’re living in a world where human protections are being rolled back all over the world. The US is not in a good place at the moment, in terms of rolling back EPA protections, water cleanliness, just basic stuff. It’s ridiculous. We’re now at a low point, and maybe we can have the same sort of effect with the film, instead of a photograph.”
“What’s important about this is it’s a tale of humanity,” says Depp, “in the sense that it asks: ‘how much are you gonna allow yourself to feel?’ Which in turn asks you, ‘do you feel enough to get involved? Can you take yourself there?’ Because this should, could have been stopped. Just nipped in the bud, way back when. But it wasn’t.”
For actor Sanada, there is a strongly positive aspect to the story, too. “There is a model case in Minamata,” he believes. “They recovered and then made their ocean beautiful again. They’ve created a good community now, and the patients’ families can be proud of themselves. So it’s a good message.”
That message should also convey the idea that the people of Minamata are not merely victims, believes Sarkar. “I think all of us feel a responsibility to portray them as having strength through adversity. That, to me, is what the photograph Tomoko in Her Bath is all about. It’s not about ‘suffering through’, it’s about ‘living with’. It’s a universal message.”
“This is not a preachy movie,” Levitas points out. “It’s not a social cause movie. It’s just a real movie about real people and living life. It’s about hope and love and the human spirit. I want it to inspire people and touch hearts and minds, to get people to engage in the world in a certain way. But I also want them to love the movie. I want it to be exciting and enjoyable and visually do justice to what Gene did. And what he did was find the most difficult moments and find light and love and humanity in them. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. But when you can see the world through that lens, in the darkest moments the world is still a beautiful place. Life is still a gift and a blessing, and he expresses that. I think that’s part of the opportunity of this movie. Part of what I hope we’ve done visually.”