Kim Longinotto's career as a filmmaker has focused on sharing the stories of inspiring women with the world. Her subjects have included female genital mutilation in Kenya ('The Day I Will Never Forget'), women confronting rapists in India ('Pink Saris'), women living as men in Japan ('Eat the Kimono'), and Tehran's divorce courts ('Divorce, Iranian Style'). Her new documentary 'Shooting the Mafia' explores the life of Letizia Battaglia, an 83-year-old photographer who helped document the violence that has plagued her native Sicily.
Battaglia took up photojournalism at the age of 40 after her divorce in 1971, while raising her three daughters. She picked up a camera when she found that she could better sell her articles if they were accompanied by photographs and slowly discovered a passion for it. Along the way, she also picked up a string of boyfriends who, to misquote Matthew McConaughey's Wooderson from 'Dazed and Confused', stayed the same age as she got older. In 1974, after a period in Milan during which she met her long-time partner Franco Zecchin, she returned to Sicily to work for the left-wing L'Ora newspaper in Palermo until it was forced to close in 1992.
Battaglia and Zecchin produced many of the iconic images that have come to represent Sicily and the Mafia beyond Italy. The photographs and news reports highlight the brutality of the attacks. Even more horrifying is the fact that mafia bosses were not even able to use the money they stole, so the crimes were committed as a power trip or a demonstration of masculinity.
The film details how Battaglia also became involved in women's and environmental issues (before eventually bowing out with an overwhelming sense of cynicism). For several years, she stopped taking pictures and officially entered the world of politics. From 1985 to 1991 she held a seat on the Palermo city council for the Green Party, from 1991 to 1996 she was a Deputy at the Sicilian Regional Assembly for The Network. She was instrumental in saving and reviving the historic center of Palermo.
Longinotto splices together interviews with Battaglia and her many lovers, using footage from classic movies to accompany the stories of romance. This is juxtaposed with Battaglia's photographs and videos, archival video material from on-the-spot TV news detailing the Cosa Nostra's crimes. The Cosa Nostra would kill anyone (governors, senior policemen, entire mafia families) who didn't follow their rules or tried to judge them, using tableaus of violence to send a message, both manipulating and feeding off the media's interest. In fact, the ferocious Corleonesi mafia clan would execute two of Battaglia's dearest friends: the anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.
Her photos are grisly. In one, we see a pair of human eyeballs stuffed into a dead hand. Many of the photos are of the bodies of women who have been shot in the back.
Battaglia took some 600,000 images as she covered the territory for the paper. She documented the ferocious internal war of the Mafia, and its assault on civil society. She sometimes found herself at the scene of four or five different murders in a single day (in one year alone, the Mafia murdered over 1,000 people in Palermo). Her photos are grisly. In one, we see a pair of human eyeballs stuffed into a dead hand. Many of the photos are of the bodies of women who have been shot in the back. In 1979, Battaglia boldly set up oversize photographs of Mafia victims in the main square of Corleone; the archival footage chosen for 'Shooting the Mafia' points to the way cinema has glorified the lives of the Mafia, attributing rules of honour that don't reflect reality. Battaglia's photos were an act of condemnation.
There is a sense that the documentary is trying to weigh Battaglia's forceful proto-feminism against the masculine and toxic culture of Sicily's underworld, but can't consolidate the two. Battaglia admits that life was difficult for her daughters, and she refuses to talk further about them. On occasions, she also wearily dismisses her own work. "I look at my photographs, it's just blood, blood, blood," she says. While Longinotto excels in making films about rebellious women, her work here is restrained by a subject who is understandably reluctant to fully open up about her life and passions and revisit days of unfathomable carnage.
As it jumps from era to era, the film never quite brings together the determined woman and her trailblazing work into a coherent portrait. 'Shooting the Mafia' is an interesting but disjointed look at one of the great photographers of our time.