Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Shooting the Mafia – celebrating Letizia Battaglia’s Sicilian photography which documented the aftermath of mafia violence (QFT from Friday 29 November)

Born in 1935, celebrated photographer Letizia Battaglia’s young life was dominated by men who cramped her freedom. A man’s sexual act in front of her in a shadowy street, her father grounding her and sending her to a convent school, an older husband who fathered her two children but was violent towards her and didn’t think a young mother barely out of her teens should go back to study.

As her children grew up, she took on casual work in the L’Ora daily newspaper in Palermo, Sicily, preferring pictures over words and becoming a photographer documenting the violence and killings, and it was the turn of the mafia to try and exert pressure on Battaglia, only to discover that while she experienced fear, she wouldn’t cower or desist.

Shooting the Mafia tells the intertwined stories of the breakdown in the rule of law on Sicily with the Corleonesi clan dominating local industry, commerce and society while Battaglia’s own personal breakdown in the rule of love, taking on young lovers, one of whom her jealous husband shot. They divorced in 1971.

Ciné footage of Sicilian events is mixed in with her own stark black and white still photography – sometimes featuring still warm corpses lying where they fell – as well as clips from Italian films of the time which are used to symbolically illustrate the voiceover narration about her life. Amazingly, two of her former partners sit down on camera to recollect with Battaglia: Santi who used to sneak into her house while she was still married, and Franco who lived with her for 18 years. There’s still a lot of affection and the men continue to be entranced by the octogenarian.

Battaglia briefly acknowledges her difficult relationship with her daughters and it’s clear that her happiness and wellbeing floats above any joy or satisfaction she gets out of love or companionship. Included in the film are the stories of anti-mafia judges Falcone and Borsellino who became friends as she moved from merely shooting the mobsters to enter politics as an elected representative for the Green Party.

War correspondents and war photographers tend to work away from home. Their biographies typically outline how they attempt to compartmentalise what they see and who they are, though the trauma of work inevitably seems to impinge on their home life. Battaglia’s conflict was right on her doorstop in the capital city of the island of Sicily: five or more murders a day in Palermo and 1000 people killed one year at its peak. Along with colleagues, she was under threat for documenting the faces of mafia friends and family at funerals.

Battaglia was suffering from depression when she started working for L’Ora. While showing remarkable resilience, the photojournalist speaks about the moments in her later career – and she certainly shows no sign of retiring – when she could not face jumping in a taxi to witness the aftermath of the latest major atrocity, reminding me of the trauma Deric Henderson spoke of earlier this year about organising a team of 20 reporters and photographers to report from Omagh after the 1998 bombing, but his decision not to be there himself.

As a refresher on mafia history and an exhibition of imagery by Letizia Battaglia, this is a superb documentary. If you endured Martin Scorsese’s mob confessional feature The Irishman, then Shooting the Mafia is a less glitzy companion piece to show how the Sicilian mafia bosses actually lived and worked.

Unusually, this film benefits from director Kim Longinotto’s wandering focus which belatedly shifts away from Battaglia to assess how Sicilian society began to change in light of the car bombs that murdered anti-mafia figures. It’s as if the population found their voice and the huge public vigils could begin relieving the pressure on Battaglia’s shoulders to bring the madness to the fore.

Shooting the Mafia (15) is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 29 November. The screening on Monday 2 December will be followed by a discussion with the film’s producer, Niamh Fagan, as part of BFI Audience Fund’s Reclaim the Frame project.

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