Inspiring story about photographic pioneer who documented the Sicilian Mafia
Words by Manon Girault
BY SHOOTING, BRITISH DOCUMENTARIAN Kim Longinotto alludes to the act in both a journalistic and a criminal sense. In her latest feature, shooting film becomes a weapon for real-life protagonist Letizia Battaglia the first Italian female photojournalist to document the Costra Nostra Warfare, also known as “The Great Mafia War”, that led to thousands of killings on the island of Sicily. Worshipped by locals for steering away from glorifying photographs of the Sicilian Mafia, Battaglia combated organised crime through a more faithful, slice-of-life documentation. Battaglia’s confidence that emerges from her storytelling – shoulder on the table, making eye-to-eye with the camera and smoking away in a relaxed manner - sensitises us to the intimacy Shooting the Mafia manages to capture.
In the past, Longinotto, a pioneer of observational documentary filmmaking, has executed some of the most arresting work on under-discussed women's issues. To celebrate Battaglia, Longinotto, for the first time, experiments with the observational form by mixing in excerpts of newsreels, femme fatales of cult Italian films (at times, confusing to the viewer since the resemblance between Battaglia and the actresses was so similar) and some of the journalist’s personal footage. In fact, the 84-year-old Palermese, with a beauty reminiscent of Agnès Varda, never feared to put herself at risk to capture the crude reality of this (very specific type of) man’s world. Countering the more colourful archive material with stills of her unforgettably brutal black-and-white images not only enriches the photojournalist's story but also creates a sense of narrative linearity with the historical backdrop.
The first hour of the film focuses on Battaglia’s tumultuous past, in large part defined by her romances - from becoming a teenage bride to fleeing her domestic abuse – before picking up a camera for the first time at the late age of forty. The film proceeds to cover what first acted as the backdrop of the bio-doc – the mafioso politics themselves. Cosa Nostra makes its first appearance as a somewhat cursed, phantom body that finally allows spectators to put faces to names. Throughout, Loginotto disrupts the narrative with her stark stills to describe the ghostly nature of such acts of crimes and of the souls of their persons in charge.
The film ends on a return to Battaglia, her proud declaration of growing old and defying, as she long did in her work, never to surrender to fear. The film maintains a very straightforward narrative flow throughout, but its ‘bad-assness’ seems to fade towards the end as we are left uncertain of the mafia’s occupation in Sicily today and, to which the elderly Battaglia’s final optimism of the Youth as a combatant force is only mildly convincing.
Despite Loginotto’s inability to bring in Battaglia’s tie to her daughters as well as her less explicable choice of a more disruptive stereotypical soundtrack (e.g. Neapolitan song “O Sole Mio” and the often confused Spanish song “Volare”), presumably used as a tactic to transcribe Battaglia's work as part of Italy’s history, Shooting the Mafia remains an evocative film. The documentary delivers a touching portrayal of an inspiring woman who has seemingly come to terms with the weight of her own legacy and feels ready enough to shift responsibilities to her contemporaries. Indeed, Battaglia’s ageing is addressed to review the changes within Italian society. Ironically today, she, who rubbed shoulders with the biggest criminals, is intimidated by the shots of her younger companion drag-queens –a focus onto a newer world than she had never been exposed to.
By contrasting Battaglia’s sobering accounts of the bloodshed of hundreds of men, women and children to her own charismatic character, Longinotto succeeds at fuelling the spectator’s investment and emotion. Shooting the Mafia is a tender collection of her former colleagues and younger lovers who can only regard her as inspiring.
SHOOTING THE MAFIA AS A GUIDE TO LIFE
Don't always hide behind the camera
Shooting the Mafia
Director: Kim Longinotto
Country: Ireland / USA
Duration: 94 minutes
Rating: 15 for "images of real dead bodies and violence"
Release: Screened as part of CPH:DOX
Manon Girault is a writer based in London.