Bizarre Johnny Depp Premiere Features Disease Victim Photos During Dance Party

The Minamata party at the Berlin Film Festival - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy photo

Remember when Universal Pictures hosted a disco party for Schindler's List? Of course not, because it never happened.

And the Feb. 21 party at the Berlin Film Festival for Minamata — a fact-based drama about an environmental disaster in a Japanese village in the 1970s, with Johnny Depp playing W. Eugene Smith, the Life magazine photographer who chronicled the tragedy — probably shouldn't have happened, either.

At least not the way it did.

Held in a gritty Berlin warehouse club called Arena, it was clearly intended to be a dance party, with strobe lights, a large dance floor and a DJ mixing tracks like "Jungle Boogie" and "Push It." But there also were giant images from the film projected on the wall — at director Andrew Levitas' insistence, sources say — including several recreations of Smith's iconic photographs.

Described by Levitas as a passion project for Depp, Minamata follows Smith's real-life journey to Japan in the early 1970s to document the devastating effects of industrial mercury poisoning on a traditional coastal community. As the film recounts, Smith's photos ultimately played a pivotal role in arousing an international outcry over the state-level corruption and cover-up that had allowed Japanese chemical company Chisso to continue poisoning thousands of villagers with impunity.

It was Smith's sorrowful depiction of the devastating effects on victims, including muscular contortions, blindness and insanity, that helped put an end to the crisis — particularly his image "Tomoko in Her Bath," a startlingly intimate black-and-white portrait of a mother cradling her naked, deformed daughter, which now hangs in the Smithsonian.

So when the film's recreation of that same image was projected over the dance floor in Berlin, with party music blasting and a bar serving free-flowing cocktails nearby, many attendees were disorientated, if not disturbed. Most gravitated to the club's back rooms, and the dance floor stood deserted. 

This story first appeared in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.