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27th Nov 2019

Shooting the Mafia: one woman’s stark, brutal depiction of organised violence

Jade Hayden

“Your first murder never leaves you.”

Letizia Battaglia didn’t plan on becoming a Mafia crime scene photographer.

Rather, she presumed that she would shoot pictures of families, children, and workers living in the Sicilian region in the 1970s, during a time of oppression, crime, and feudal control.

But the realities of the Italy she was living in refused to be contained, and just three days on the job as Italy’s first female photojournalist at a daily newspaper, she witnessed her first murder.

Directed by Kim Longinotto and produced by Niamh Fagan, Shooting the Mafia tells the story of Letizia’s crucial work in a male dominated sphere, as well as the chaos and cruelty experienced by those living under the oppressive control of the Sicilian Mafia.

Narrated by Letizia herself and featuring a series of photos from her staggering archive of 600,000, Shooting the Mafia presents an unflinching portrayal of the poverty suffered and the lives lost during this time.

Letizia tells her story through photos, but her words strike just as pointedly – and almost as vividly.

In the film, she details the scene of one of her first murders; a man who had been shot in a field beneath an olive tree.

The photograph itself is jarring – a corpse lying face down amidst the polarising backdrop of the Sicilian countryside – but it’s Letizia’s narration that lends the image its severity, as she describes the smell of the body’s decay in the wind, and her unwavering confidence that it was going to start moving again.

But it’s not just men who are the subjects of Letizia’s work, but women and children too.

These images are subtle, but in some ways, just as graphic.

They’re an entirely raw representation of the brutality, the pain, and grief suffered from those were unlucky enough to simply exist in this world: the mother with her three starving children, the howling woman in the streets, the baby whose finger was chewed off by rats in the middle of the night.

Producer Niamh Fagan says that part of the reason why she was drawn to Letizia’s work was because of her own presence in the images, a force of resistance fighting back through the lens.

“I’ve always been drawn to women who stand up to repressive power,” she tells Her. “Women who dare to shout ‘stop!’ – whether that’s to religion, politics, the medical profession or organised crime.”

“I was astonished by the power and artistry of Letizia’s photographs. In many of her pictures the bodies of the slain are men, but the agony, fear and burden is conveyed to us through the women she depicts.”

Fagan first discovered Letizia’s work when she visited the Anti-Mafia Museum in Corleone. She says that the 84-year-old’s photos stuck with her until she was eventually driven to contact her herself.

“I’m really glad I did. Whatever about her photography, she is an amazing woman,” she says.

“Letizia’s surname, Battaglia, means battle. Much of her life has been a battle; a battle against the Mafia, a battle against religious oppression, a battle against political corruption, a battle against tradition and convention.”

Letizia’s brazenness in a world that is largely dismissive of female agency is depicted through her work, but also through her lifestyle and the way she presents herself to the world.

She herself is a figure of resistance, a woman who reuses to settle down, who dyes her hair bright pink in her 80s, who chain smokes while pounding gin and tonics all the while revealing the cruel reality of the landscape she has been living in.

Shooting the Mafia may just be all of those things too.

Released during a time when depictions of the Mafia are often warped and glamorised, the film provides a stark and hauntingly accurate representation of the death and destruction caused by the organisation, and the very real affect their actions had on regular people.

“In Ireland we’ve been spoon-fed the Hollywood Glamour Mafia for decades,” says Fagan. “Letizia’s work dispels the myth that there is a shred of glamour or honour in the Mafia.”

“I think Shooting the Mafia chimes more readily with our own tawdry and contemporary world of organised crime-family feuding than any Godfather-esque romanticised notions.

“There’s nothing sexy about the impoverished and powerless victims of organised crime.

“Letizia’s ballsy, she’s strong, she’s talented, and she takes no shit from people in power – now that’s sexy, if you ask me.”

Shooting the Mafia opens in Ireland on Friday, November 29 in Dublin’s IFI and Cork’s Triskel Arts Centre.

You can check out the trailer here: 

Shooting The Mafia Official UK Trailer | In Cinemas 29 November

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