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by Becky Tan

Andrew Levitas, USA

W. Eugene Smith was a photographer born December 30, 1918 in Kansas. He eventually settled in New York, where he worked for several US publications such as Life Magazine and the New York Times. During World War II he submitted photos from the Pacific side of the war. When the film opens in 1971 Smith is suffering from a destructive lifestyle of alcohol, drugs, and contrary expectations from employers which result in the loss of jobs.

On several trips to Japan, where he meets his wife Ailene, he learns about the town of Minamata, population 25,000, on the Japanese west coast. There, residents, many of them young children, suffer an unusual number of terrible diseases and disabilities. He traces the cause to mercury, flowing illegally for over 15 years into the waters where the main income is fishing. He contacts Chisso, the chemical company responsible. The executives feel that they own the town and attempt to solve the differences by offering Smith a great deal of money. He rejects the bribe and begins photographing the patients in their homes. These photos appear in US publications and set off waves of attempts to end the destructive circumstances. 

MIRAMATApresents these facts with Johnny Depp in the role of W. Eugene Smith, Bill Nighy as Robert Hayes from Life Magazine, and Minami as Aileen. Johnny Depp is also producer. These participants as well as director Andrew Levitas, Aileen Mioko Smith, and others (nine in all) discussed the film at the Berlinale press conference; in Miramata 3000 people died and 10,000 are still suffering. Levitas said that the whole idea to film originated with Depp. This is an important film about an environmental catastrophe which still exists. (Another recent film is DARK WATERS about similar situation in West Virginia, USA, in 1998.)