One of Britain’s best documentary filmmakers trades on-camera interviews for archive footage in Shooting the Mafia.
Kim Longinotto excels at providing observational portraits of extraordinary women forging their way in oppressive structures across the world. Her usual method is to embed herself within events as they happen, never flinching from pointing her camera at moments of overwhelming emotion. Shooting the Mafia is a departure in that it is a film borne of archival footage and she has a surrogate in the form of Palermo-based octogenarian Letizia Bagglia, who lived many lives before launching her career as a photojournalist in the 1970s for Sicilian paper, L’Ora.
The Sicilian Mafia was at the peak of its powers and their killings dominated Letizia’s assignments. She took photos of bodies in the street, of mothers holding photos of missing children, of bombed out cars, risking her life by chronicling the litany of violent acts about which a whole region had been terrorised into keeping omertà. As Longinotto puts it, “I feel I’ve been cheated all my life by Hollywood. You see Al Pacino shooting somebody and it’s just fun. You don’t see that that person has a family, or the people who have to scrape the bodies off the ground and put them in a coffin. You don’t see that children are murdered.”
Producer Niamh Fagan Holmes discovered Bagglia’s work in 2013. While travelling through Sicily, she visited the anti-Mafia museum in the small town of Corleone. “When you go in, the walls are adorned by black-and-white photographs of various sizes, some poster size. They’re really effective photographs, devastating but beautiful at the same time.” Holmes did her research and, after discovering that nobody had made a film about Battaglia, reached out to Longinotto to remedy that.
Shooting the Mafia intertwines a range of materials: observational footage of Letizia shot by Longinotto; Letizia’s photographs; archive newsreel footage; and excerpts from films of that era. Ollie Huddleston has been Longinotto’s editor for 20 years. He talked about working from cards stuck on a wall to create a layered story. “There’s many themes and the more you can put into it, the more we’re going to care, so we blend those. Not having footage of Letizia falling in love, we had to use a movie. Not having footage of the Mafia murders other than just bodies in the street, we use the tuna being battered by fishermen. You have to use metaphor. We layered it up as much as we could. You’re having to marry the two stories the whole time – the personal and the larger story. The thing that drove us was that it should be an emotional experience.”
One pervading emotion is sorrow for the countless victims who met their end like animals in the street. Letizia’s photos are full of the intimacy of bearing witness to real death. Longinotto recalls something she says within the film, “When you’re taking these photographs of people in extreme distress, you want to tell them you love them, and this photo is going to bear witness to what these cowards are doing… But you can’t.”
Among its other qualities, Shooting the Mafia is an extraordinary research project, with Letizia’s photos often seen in context with archive footage from crime scenes and court room audio, the latter kicking in once the film’s chronology reaches Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the judges who fought the mafia and their giant criminal trial that indicted 475 mafiosi running from 1986-1992.
Holmes says of the process, “The Italian news station RAI have amazing archives. They keep everything but they just don’t know where it is. It takes a long time and a lot of persistence to say, ‘I know you have it.’ You need to have maybe seen something in another film, or another documentary that’ll lead you to that. It’s peeling back the layers. We have an amazing woman at RAI called Sila Berruti. She worked day and night for us.” Holmes adds that the production was buoyed by mass local support. “People would hear what you were talking about and say, ‘Have you seen this film?’ People were really eager to help, particularly Sicilians.”
Asked whether there was anything too brutal to include in the film. Longinotto replies in a heartbeat, “There was a story that we cut out and I’m glad we did – it was just too much. It’s an Italian story about Giuseppe Di Matteo, a 12-year-old boy who was the son of an informer. We got the real voiceover of the people who kidnapped him. He went with them willingly because they were friends of his father. They kept him in a hole in the ground for two years but he still went on trusting them. Then they said, ‘Oh come on we’re gonna take you back to your dad’ and then they strangled him. I had nightmares about it.”
We were spared this story, but it remained the production’s mission to show that the Mafia murder children “because that is never in films,” says Longinotto. “I’ve never seen a Mafia film – The Godfather or Goodfellas or any gangster film – where they come up behind an unarmed kid and just shoot him down.” Letizia took a colour photo of a child lying on the pavement facedown in a pool of his blood. He had witnessed his father’s murder and probably knew the killers. This image appears late in the film. “We thought it was important to have that shot because they can’t go any lower than that. I don’t think we ever doubted putting that in. It was one of the last photos that Letizia took and you can sort of see why.”
Longinotto reflects on the toll of being marinated in such bloody images. “Nothing compared to what Letizia went through. We did all get really freaked out that year and a half, but she was doing it for 20 years. It is really different. We were looking at photographs, we weren’t taking them.” On a lighter note, is Letizia still with the artist 38 years her junior that we see her with in the film? Longinotto shrieked with delight: “Yes!!”
Shooting the Mafia is released 29 November. Read the LWLies review.
Published 28 Nov 2019
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