The brutal atrocities of life and death under the Mafia have rarely been captured in such a riveting way as they were by acclaimed Italian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, the fascinating subject of filmmaker Kim Longinotto’s engrossing documentary, Shooting the Mafia. Battaglia’s photos encompassed the gamut of Sicilian life starting in the early 1970s, but the vast majority focused on violent Mafia crimes and their impact on the people of Palermo. Battaglia acknowledges that making a living documenting terrifying violence on a daily basis, and often receiving death threats, took an emotional toll, but she rarely let fear get in the way of doing her job. She knew she was being watched, and she learned quickly how to cough to conceal the click of her camera at the victims’ funerals.
Battaglia grew up in a working class family in Palermo, Sicily in what was then a highly patriarchal society. She felt stifled by her domineering father, tried to escape the confines of her childhood by marrying the first man she met at 16, then found herself trapped in an unhappy marriage. After her divorce in 1971, she took up photojournalism and began her trailblazing career as a photographer in a male-dominated profession. At 40, she became the first female photographer in Italy to work for a daily newspaper, Palermo’s left-wing L’Ora. At first, she thought she’d be photographing children, women, and the streets of her hometown. She never expected she’d become best known for her work shooting the Mafia and documenting the life and crimes of the Corleonesi clan.
Battaglia describes how her first pictures were terrible, but improved as she grew to love the medium and the way the camera enabled her to express herself. Indeed, the camera changed her life. She discovered a passion for photography and loved revealing through her images what she’d seen and how she felt about it. She preferred photography to writing, because it allowed her to tell her own story. Battaglia has always had a passionate social and political commitment to improving people’s lives. She turned to politics late in life, holding a seat on the Palermo City Council for the Green Party. As she explains in the film, “I was no one, but I was an honest woman who wanted to build a better society.”
Longinotto skillfully intercuts scenes from classic Italian Neorealism cinema with pivotal moments in Battaglia’s life and career. Like the Neorealist filmmakers of post-WWII who focused on stories about the tragedy of the human condition, Battaglia took to the streets to capture tragic stories about ordinary, working class people living in poverty in a region devastated by endless Mafia wars. Longinotto documents Battaglia’s romantic affairs with fellow artists, often younger than her, whom she interviews in the film, including long-time partner Franco Zecchin. She uses archival news footage to provide a valuable historical backdrop to a particularly violent era of Mafia mob activities that Battaglia chronicled during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Looking back on her career, Battaglia regrets not photographing two victims of Mafia revenge from that era, Judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who dedicated their professional lives to prosecuting the Mafia and were assassinated in 1992. Battaglia admired their courage and was profoundly affected by their deaths.
Longinotto is well known for her films about inspiring women, and Shooting the Mafia is another impressive addition to that body of work. What stands out is the imaginative and impactful way she draws from Battaglia’s archive of iconic black and white photos and allows her brave life behind the camera to speak for itself.