EXCLUSIVE: Director Andrew Levitas has sent a letter of complaint to MGM and others to protest what he claims is a decision to “bury” the film Minamata because of the personal baggage of its star, Johnny Depp. The film lays bare the scandalous neglect that the Chisso Corporation displayed in the Japanese coastal city where locals were ravaged by mercury poisoning from chemicals dumped into the waters by a factory, which spread to local population through the ingestion of fish. It was exposed in the 1950s.
In the film, Depp plays Eugene Smith, a famed photojournalist who has disconnected from the world but takes a final assignment from his Life magazine editor (Bill Nighy). He is accompanied by a Japanese translator (Minami) and encouraged by a local villager (Hiroyuki Sanada) as he helps expose decades of gross negligence by the Chisso Corporation. Minamata also stars Jun Kunimura, Ryo Kase, Tadanobu Asano and Akiko Iwase.
The film was acquired last fall, shortly after MGM relaunched American International Pictures, the former B-movie factory hatched in the ’50s by Samuel Arkoff, and after the film debuted at the Berlinale that year. The plan was a day-and-date theatrical/VOD release for the film in February, a date that came and went. The deal was made as Depp was exchanging barbs with former wife Amber Heard, and defending himself from accusations from charges of physical and verbal abuse, as part of a libel case against British tabloid the Sun, which Depp lost. After the deal was made, Depp posted that Warner Bros had asked him to resign the role of Grindelwald in the Harry Potter spinoff the Fantastic Beasts franchise. Mads Mikkelsen was tapped to replace him last November.
Levitas writes that he was told by acquisitions head Sam Wollman, who bought Minamata, that it would not be promoted and that “MGM had decided to ‘bury the film’ (acquisitions head Mr. Sam Wollman’s words).” Levitas sent the letter not only to MGM but also to the film’s backers The Eugene Smith Foundation and the Minamata Foundation. The filmmaker urged MGM to reconsider and believes the studio is not giving strong enough consideration to the importance of the subject matter, which exposed corporate wrongdoing and indifference and memorialized the generational and devastating damage inflicted on locals because of the poisoning depicted in the film.
Said an MGM spokesperson when asked by Deadline about the letter: “The film was acquired for release via American International Pictures (AIP), a division of MGM which handles day-and-date releases. Minamata continues to be among future AIP releases and at this time, the film’s U.S. release date is TBA.”
Deadline got hold of a copy of Levitas’ letter, sent Monday morning, along with photos of suffering and deformities that came from the mercury poisoning. Here it is.
July 26th, 2021
To MGM Minamata Team:
Roughly a year ago MGM purchased the North American rights to the film Minamata after viewing it at the Berlinale. MGM was intent on bringing to light the suffering of the thousands of victims of one of the most heinous industrial pollution incidents the world has ever seen. In re-exposing their pain in the sharing of their story, this long marginalized community hoped for only one thing – to lift history from the shadows so that other innocents would never be afflicted as they have… and it seemed in that moment, with MGM’s partnership, a decades-long wish was finally coming true.
Now, imagine the devastation when they learned this past week, that despite an already successful global roll out, MGM had decided to “bury the film” (acquisitions head Mr. Sam Wollman’s words) because MGM was concerned about the possibility that the personal issues of an actor in the film could reflect negatively upon them and that from MGM’s perspective the victims and their families were secondary to this.
In a stark reminder of The Chisso Corporation’s actions in Minamata and far too many other large corporations’ unethical tactics, MGM stated that it would live up to its “legal obligation” and nothing more. In doing so, MGM is making a conscious decision to hurt these innocents yet again, callously trampling on their lives, their legacy, their dead loved ones, and their bravery.
We sat with Tomoko Uemura‘s father in Minamata as he spoke in a deeply pained voice. A pain that no one should ever feel. The pain of a lost child, a child who suffered every single day of her life. A child who was one of many born horribly deformed because a large faceless corporation didn’t live up to their moral obligation to humanity, decency and righteousness. He spoke with wisdom, grace and unimaginable dignity… Yes, you are legally within your rights to bury their story as so many have done before, but you have a moral obligation to do better than that and at a minimum we implore you to speak directly to Mr. Uemura and the other victims and offer them the dignity of understanding first hand why you think an actor’s personal life is more important than their dead children, their siblings, their parents, and all victims of industrial pollution and corporate malfeasance.
We hope you take a moment to reflect on the impact the decisions large corporations like MGM have on others and recognize your opportunity to make a substantive difference in the lives of those who continue to suffer in unfathomable ways. People all over the world are victimized by corporations who do not value them or consider them as real, and you have the power to help by simply living up to your moral commitment to support this film.
As the great freedom fighter Teruo Kawamoto said, This is the fight for all humanity. And all those involved in this story and this fight more broadly implore MGM to be the solution, to usher in a turning point in so many lives and reconsider its decision to actively hinder the distribution and promotion of Minamata.
I enclose a selection of Eugene Smith’s images from 50 years ago which pricked the conscience of the world, as well as a link to one of the victims – Shinobu Sakamoto – talking about her experience https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nN8c98aFQJ4 in hopes that Mr. Wollman and MGM will be reminded of their humanity, their responsibilities, and how rare the opportunity they hold in their hands is.
We remain steadfast that MGM will land on the right side of these issues and as such the filmmakers, the victims, their families, various NGOs and GOs, and more – all eagerly await the opportunity to work together.
Prof. Andrew Levitas
Here are the photos, taken by Smith 50 years ago, that Levitas included with his letter: