A story about a woman’s battle with one of the most powerful organizations, SHOOTING THE MAFIA (2019) showcases the life of Letizia Battaglia, a photographer who spent her career shining a light on the horrors of the Sicilian mafia.
Nestled in with the Fantasia Film Festival’s “Documentaries from the Edge,” sits Kim Longinotto’s spotlight on a woman who dedicated her life to chipping away at the notorious syndicate.
This documentary takes us to Palermo, Sicily, an area of Italy home to the most notorious crime family, and the only one properly referred to as the “mafia.” Here, Battaglia and some of her former lovers, tell the story of how she assisted in chipping away at the power of this group she hated so much.
This film is a twist on the way we usually see organized crime on screen. Gone are the glamourous dramatizations of these powerful gangsters, but instead, here is a portrayal of the real-life horror the mafia forced Sicily to endure. Battaglia dedicated her life to this perspective, and the film assists in cataloguing it for us viewers.
More than just a story about a woman taking gruesome photographs, this is a story of a woman navigating a man’s world the best she can. Battaglia recalls the first time she was made aware of the mafia, as a child, going into town alone for the first time and seeing a man in the shadows who exposed himself to her. Terrified, she told her father what had happened and he never let her out again. Battaglia grew angry at men; fathers were afraid of other men taking their daughters away, so, because of men, Battaglia was trapped inside, unable to even go out on her balcony. Later, she married. She recalled how she wanted to go to school, but her husband wouldn’t let her. Everything she wanted in her life was taken from her by men in power. Often using the word “freedom,” to describe her wants, Battaglia eventually left her husband and pursued her dreams, to be a journalist, and to then, become a photographer. Her experiences left her painfully aware of her loss of freedom at the hands of powerful men, and she grew to not just resent them but to want to expose them.
After discovering written journalism wasn’t for her, Battaglia found herself behind the camera. A week into her job as a photographer at a local paper, she witnessed and photographed her first murder. Her career took her to photographing the dead; capturing the deaths of Sicilians at the hands of the mafia, a group she actively protested and rallied against. In the early 1970’s, when the patriarchal mafia was at a pinnacle of power, she made sure the world couldn’t look away, frequenting crime scenes, funerals and trials and pointing her lens. Battaglia treated her subjects with respect and dignity, wanting to assure them she loved them despite pointing a camera at them in their darkest moments.
But her tale as a photographer is one of sacrifice. She concedes to having ruined relationships with lovers, family and friends. She tears up recalling how many times she dreamt of burning all of her negatives. And she chokes up through her regrets of being unable to photograph the friends and allies she had who were ultimately victims of the mafia’s retaliation.
Later in her life, Battaglia would get into politics, focusing on cracking down on organized crime, the extension of her goals as a photographer. Her photos were never to glamorize death but to point the lens directly at the mafia and shoot.
SHOOTING THE MAFIA will appeal to history buffs, legal scholars, feminists, and anyone with an interest in the reality of the mafia. Showcasing not just the life story of an incredible trailblazer, but the history of the Palermo and Corleone crime syndicates, the Cosa Nostra, showing clips of Salvatore Riina, (former Godfather known for ordering the murder of prosecutors and law enforcement who tried to bring him down), Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino (anti-mafia magistrates, the former’s whose death shattered Battaglia and that she regrets not being able to photograph) and other mafia trials and questionings. The most terrifying archival footage, the 1986 Maxi-Trial, that indicted 475 mafioso all threatening witnesses from behind bars at once, a trial Battaglia couldn’t bring herself to attend.
The story of the mafia is much bigger than one woman, and the film sometimes veers into being more about it than its main subject. Bloated with a combination of archival footage and clunky dramatizations, it’s sometimes easy to forget this is a tale of the sacrifices of a woman on an important mission. But maybe he sacrifices leaving her so alone lead to the lack of those able to discuss her life story on screen, and this very real portrait of her life is more archival mafia footage than personal memory.