While Minamata Mandala may cross over 6 hours in length, it only goes to show the sheer importance of the events of this terrible indictment of the 65,000 victims from their Government for more than 57 years. A sprawling and engrossing documentary that leaves no stone unturned in the victim’s crusade for justice. This documentary leaves you angry at the bureaucratic system yet in awe of those who kept going.
As early as 1937, the Chisso Corporation began dumping toxic waste into the waters of a fishing village in Minamata, Japan. This initiated a form of often-fatal methylmercury poisoning in the local population – now known as Minamata disease – which causes paralysis, loss of eyesight, damage to hearing, and neurological disorders. Even though Minamata disease was officially certified in 1977, many sufferers are yet to have their affliction properly recognised. In MINAMATA Mandala, Kazuo Hara tracks the seemingly endless legal struggles of several victims of the disease as they battle in the courts for compensation and fair treatment, being met, at every turn, with the bureaucratic obstinance and indifference of state institutions. Throughout this epic, 15-year journey and three-part film, Hara treats each individual and the local community with tremendous empathy and raises necessary global questions about public health, corporate accountability, and the environment.
The Minamata disease is something that will have passed many of us by here in the UK. However, it has been rumbling on in Japan for many decades with other features and documentaries. None more so than Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s fantastic Minamata: The Victims and Their World and the Minamata Disease: A Trilogy films. Kazuo Hara reignites this struggle and gives it the widest audience possible with his remarkable documentary. This is a tale in one form or another that has happened in many countries far too often; however, many will not have had a director as dedicated to their cause as the people of Minamata have with Hara. After Tsuchimoto showed what was happening with the first generation to be afflicted with the disease, Hara shows the struggles of the second generation.
Minamata Mandala opens with us brought immediately into a 2004 press conference where the Environment Ministers are inundated furiously by victims and supporters. There is such anger in their voices as they detail and beg for apologies. Yet, these politicians who do not know their pain struggle to relay their apologies. Some make a point not even to apologise as that would bring the blame back to them. They accept that they lost and are solemn about it. But their words mean nothing to these victims, and as the documentary goes on, you realise how right the victims were to be angry and unaccepting of such false “apologies”.
Despite everything going on, Hara focuses on the people affected by it all. He could easily take his film down the legal route and try and dig there or the conflicting opinions in the scientific field. Yet he stays with those affected, either ignored or left in a cruel limbo, in between decisions. These are people left to suffer without acceptance of what condition they have because of red tape. At one point, the local and central governments blame each other for not changing the inadequate criteria that recognise Minamata in certain people. This level of horrible bureaucracy weighs on you as you see these poor people either sink into their chairs or rise in a fury. They are hopeless in their battle, and Hara’s camera perfectly encapsulates that. He wants the world to see what has been happening here, what has been happening to these people, and boy is it an eye-opener.
As mentioned, he could have gone more into the court proceedings, but by telling each of his subjects story and their journey, his film connects far better than many others would. By focusing on the people involved, we feel even more for them in their fight with a broken judicial system that has been doing everything possible to refrain from giving these people what they need. We never hear straight from these people, and in truth, we shouldn’t. All we would listen to are lies. Like the people in those press conferences, we would shrug and become angry at them. Let the focus rightfully stay on those who deserve it.
Thanks to the 6hr 12 min runtime, we get to spend so much time with each of the focused victims that we become fully enveloped in their battle. If we had spent a reduced amount of time with each one, their journey would still evoke some emotion, but not nearly as much as needed. We see their successes and defeats. We become elated and deflated for them in each of their battles and when the governments continually appeal when they state that they won’t. Multiple times your eyebrows try to punch your hairline as you strongly believe that this is the next step, then we are dragged back to a state of pure fury.
The forcing of having victims accept 2.1 million yen (around £13,000) as settlement equally disturbs and angers you, and this isn’t the first or only time throughout Minamata Mandala that this happens as the group of survivors agree (all but one) to the compensation but under a lot of force from authorities. You can see how worn down they are, how they are only accepting this meagre settlement because they just want it to finish, most are now recognised and can live with that and accept their medical passport (monthly payments) for their treatment. You feel for them, you can tell, and in fact, one states as much how they wanted to decline. But due to who they were seated with, they say yes. This disheartening fact hurts, as there is fight and anger there, but these people are in their 80s and beyond, and they can only fight for so long.
A scene in the last 40 minutes of Minamata Mandala is haunting how it perfectly mirrors the events ten years prior. The supporters and victims lash out as the woefully unprepared politicians try to get the press conference over with as quickly as possible. For ten years to pass and for some of the victims to be in the same position is unforgivable.
Minamata Mandala has not yet been shown in a screening for those in the documentary. Instead, their story has been shown worldwide in festivals, with viewers who will become angry for them. Will this cause a new wave of support and pressure on the Governments, Central or local, to do something about this? Time will tell, but for now, all we can do is salute Hara’s monumental efforts in presenting this to us. Hopefully, those involved will get to see and learn about how aghast we are about what they have gone through. At 6 hours and 12 minutes, this may seem like a piece that should be skipped. Still, every moment matters, every story matters, and this makes Minamata Mandala as essential a documentary as they come. Truly unmissable.
To catch more of our reviews throughout Sheff Doc Fest 2021, Have a look below:
Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
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