“I didn’t want to make an obscure, small art film that people didn’t see,” says Andrew Levitas. “This specific story was made so people could see it.”
The renowned sculptor and photographer – and husband of celebrated classical singer Katherine Jenkins – is talking about his new film, Minamata. A powerful and poignant history lesson, it tells the story of the mercury poisoning of Minamata residents in Japan via a chemical factory owned by the Chisso Corporation.
Levitas captures this shocking story through the lens of Life magazine photographer W Eugene Smith (played by Johnny Depp), but also Aileen Mioko Smith, the Japanese translator who, in 1971, encouraged him to document the scandal (and later became his wife).
A story painfully close to Japanese hearts, it's a mightily difficult one for a native director to approach, says Minami, the actress famed for Battle Royale, who plays Mioko Smith. "But thanks to Andrew, he is an outsider. So we can make a great story."
The film arrives on the back of several other high-profile American projects dealing with similar corporate malfeasance – right back to Erin Brockovich, with an Oscar-winning Julia Roberts as an intrepid paralegal fighting the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, to Todd Haynes's recent Dark Waters, which dealt with chemical company DuPont contaminating the water supply in West Virginia. Even Fahrenheit 11/9, Michael Moore's 2018 documentary, taps into the poisoning of Flint, Michigan's water supply.
“Our film isn’t meant to be a search for justice or truth,” claims Levitas. “It’s not a thriller in that way, like those films are, digging through and finding these little details. This is a movie about humanity, this is a movie about people. And the film is meant to provide an opportunity for you to look at yourself and look at others – not to be just a straight indictment of a specific corporation or a specific issue.”
Nevertheless, David Kessler's script for Minamata shocked the Japanese cast, including Westworld star Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays anti-Chisso activist Mitsuo Yamazaki.
“Oh, my gosh, I felt shame,” he admits. “Because as a Japanese person, I didn’t know. That’s why I thought this story must be told to the world, especially now – it’s going to be good for the younger Japanese generation, I believe, to re-examine it.”
In extreme cases, Minamata disease – a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning – results in paralysis, coma and death, while many others who survive are debilitated by its after-effects. Victims, who have spent decades fighting for compensation, now face their plight being forgotten.
"It was plainly a righteous movie to be making," says Bill Nighy, the British actor who co-stars as Robert Hayes, the Life magazine editor who sends Smith to Japan to cover the story. As Depp himself has said: "Films like this don't get made every day."
Passions were stirred, and Levitas found many were willing to forgo their usual fees to work on the film – notably Oscar-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (The Last Emperor), who watched the film and then met Levitas for tea. "We'd never met in person. I came in, he got up, gave me a big hug and thanked me for making the film. He then said of course he would do it with no financial considerations."
Even the 500-odd background artists, many of whom play protesters at the Chisso plant, were professionals who felt compelled to take part. "They flew in from all over the world to be extras, to get paid whatever an extra would get paid on a day rate," explains Levitas, "and I think that their commitment, spirit and authenticity comes through in what they did. They're not background actors, they're really the stars of the film."
Minamata also stands as a tribute to the work of Mioko Smith, who has spent more than 60 years raising awareness of Minamata disease. "She's a hero," says Minami. "I can see through Aileen the typical Japanese woman, because they are more in the shadow. But they have a strong power inside."
Levitas calls Mioko Smith "a partner of the film", noting how she was instrumental in providing access to photographic records. While the film was shot in Serbia and Montenegro, the director also insisted on taking the production to Japan to shoot drone footage of Minamata, even recording sound effects such as bird calls and running water to authentically capture the region.
Curiously, Levitas refuses to see Minamata in political terms. “Let me just say that this movie is specifically not political. This is an issue that is about human beings and it’s about all of us – everyone in this world. It’s about having a right to live an unpolluted life.” It’s not a problem that should be anywhere on the political spectrum, right wing or left wing, he adds.
“You should be able to drink a glass of water that doesn’t have anything in it that can hurt you.”
Yet, a film like this is not made in a vacuum. “The victims will realise that they are not forgotten,” says Nighy, who holds out hope that further compensation for those afflicted with Minamata disease will be offered. “Hopefully, the message will get to them and something might change in that department.”
Sanada agrees, believing that the film offers Japanese people the chance to reckon with the disaster – finally. “It’s going to be a good chance to learn from the past and think about a better future.”
Minamata is in UAE cinemas from Thursday