The words are in Italian but the message is clear: “The Mafia kills. So does silence.” This is the omerta, the code of silence the Sicilian mafia has imposed upon the people of the island through decades of war.
It as a position Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia refused to adopt. Ever since she became the first woman photographer working for a daily newspaper, Battaglia has used her camera as a tool for the people and a weapon against those who sought to destroy them.
In the new documentary film, Shooting the Mafia, film director Kim Longinotto weaves together a rich and complex tapestry that brings together Battaglia’s personal and professional lives set against the blood-drenched history of Sicily’s infamous mafia.
Eschewing Hollywood‘s fervent adoration of psychopaths, Longinotto’s film refuses to romanticize, heroicize, or otherwise sentimentalize the killers of innocent men, women, and children in favor of centering the victims’ narratives as a testament to the work of Battaglia, who fought as both a photojournalist and a member of the government to end the brutal war the mafia waged against the people of Sicily.
Battaglia’s story begins as a young girl of ten, who visited Palermo only to be assaulted by the sight of a grown man who masturbated in her direction. When she told her father, he locked her away at home, punishing her for being a girl in a man’s world. She was sent to a posh Catholic school at the age. “It made me an atheist,” Battaglia says in the film.
“We women dreamed of our freedom,” Battaglia says, speaking on behalf of all who were shuttered away, cut off from the world and by extension, discover of their true selves. Rebellion struck at the age of 16, and Battaglia married the first man who asked her and bore him two daughters before having a mental breakdown. She spent a couple of years in Switzerland to recover, returned home, took lovers, the finally realized she had to strike out on her own.
Battaglia took up photography and discovered herself, 40 years old and ready to get to work. Three days into her job at L’Ora, she saw her first murder. “This was the start of a story that lasted 19 years,” Battaglia says.
Knowing the ways of men, Battaglia found herself perfectly poised to get the job done by embarrassing them when they refused to give her access to crime scenes. Her stark photographs told the story of the victims, of the innocent killed for standing up to the mafia and refusing to participate in their crimes.
“What I learned from Letizia’s photos was that the mafia shot trade unionists, ordinary young men and women who stood up against the mafia,” Longinotto says. “They shot witnesses, like the child who had seen his dad being murdered and was then shot in the back of the head. There’s no going back from that to think the mafia is somehow entertaining or has anything attractive about it. “
Battaglia did exactly what the mafia loathed: she showed their faces, captured their weakness, and revealed their cowardice. For this she received death threats. She was spat upon, her camera smashed. Despite the abuse, Battaglia says, “I always wanted to leave, but I never have.”
Instead she became further involved in the war, leaving photography behind when she could no longer bear to shoot and became a politician in the Green Party, working with investigating judges who brought 474 men to trial, and were later found guilty in 1986. The code of silence had been broken and mafia retaliated, killing the judges with car bombs in 1992.
“Everything about Letizia is love: loving the community, the judges who stood up against the mafia,” Longinotto says. “The mafia is an organization of hate. It’s a horrible way to live. They attack the most vulnerable people. You must have a worldview that Scorsese is peddling. You don’t care when they shoot people. It glorifies the power than men with guns have. Hollywood films don’t show you the people who stand up against them, or the people like Letizia. Courage is stronger than hate; it’s the most amazing thing.”
All photos: © Letizia Battaglia.