London-born director Kim Longinotto has made a career out of portraying groups of women in unusual, sometimes extreme circumstances—among them women who work and live as men in Shinjuku Boys (1995), women seeking divorce in Iran in Divorce Iranian Style (1998), women training to be professional wrestlers in Gaea Girls (2000), women caring for South African orphans in Rough Aunties (2008), and women fighting violence against women in Uttar Pradesh in Pink Saris(2010). In her latest documentary, Shooting the Mafia, receiving its Quebec premiere at Fantasia 2019, Longinotto focuses on just one woman, but a woman who is as remarkable as any of the subjects from her previous films: photographer Letizia Battaglia, who spent her career documenting the Sicilian Mafia.
Nothing in Battaglia’s early adulthood suggested the trajectory her life would eventually assume. She recalls her childhood as happy, but also constrained, dominated by a strict father who demanded obedience and a society that expected women to confine their ambitions to the roles of wife and mother. She was married to a man 8 years her senior, from a wealthy family, whose aunt came to inspect the sheets after her bridal night, to conform that her nephew had indeed married a virgin. This section of the film is illustrated by family photos and clips from movies, accompanied by Battaglia’s narration, an approach that establishes the cultural context of her early life while also allowing her present-day voice (Battaglia is now 84) to explain her personal reality within that context.
The marriage did not go well. One source of conflict was that Battaglia wanted to continue her studies, which her husband forbade, sometimes with physical violence. Feeling she was suffocating in circumstances that would never be right for her, Battaglia had a nervous breakdown and was sent to a clinic in Switzerland to recuperate. This allowed her the time and space to recognize her own desires, and before long she had a secret admirer—Santi, who is interviewed in this film—who was also a photographer. Back home in Sicily, having had a taste of independence, she began working for a local newspaper, and gradually decided that photography suited her talents more than writing.
Battaglia became the first female photographer to work for an Italian paper. Nothing was easy—at crime scenes, men would push her aside, and she would have to fight for her right to simply do her job. When she began working 40 years ago, Palermo was experiencing a wave of Mafia violence—sometimes five murders in a day, one thousand in a year. Of course, the Mafia did not appreciate having their activities documented, so Battaglia lived in constant fear for her life, as well as enduring more ordinary indignities like having her cameras repeatedly destroyed. And yet she survived, and was able to publish photos not only of crime scenes, but also of funerals and more private circumstances, where she sometimes employed a trick of coughing to cover the camera’s click. The hold the Mafia had over Sicily and the time, and the impunity felt by those who committed murder without fear of prosecution, is established by numerous clips drawn from news coverage of the time.
Battaglia’s photographs are notable not merely for the fact that she had the courage to take them, but also for her strong sense of style, as is evident from the many photographs included in this film. I’m a big fan of Weegee, but his photos have nothing on those of Letizia Battaglia, and he was not constantly risking his life simply by carrying out his work. She’s also a fascinating interview subject, who lived life to the fullest while doing the work she felt called to do. | Sarah Boslaugh