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Life and Death in Palermo

Shooting the Mafia documents the work of photographer Letizia Battaglia.

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Portrait of a doomed social gathering: Three murdered young adults sprawled in a living room, the walls and floor splattered with blood. The victims are a prostitute and her two gay male friends; she was selling drugs, a violation of the local rules for illegal activity. That powerful photo was shot by Letizia Battaglia in her hometown of Palermo, Sicily, a city she knows well. And Palermo also knows her.

Director Kim Longinotto’s portrait of the red-haired, chain-smoking photographer Battaglia, now a feisty 83, is a vivid documentary description of a very specific time and place. Forty years ago Battaglia started snapping pictures in the street, where much of Palermo’s dirty work ends up. In most of the world’s cities, the ordinary type of ground-level candid imagery is welcome as an inducement to tourism, but in Palermo, historic home of the Cosa Nostra organized crime families, you have to be careful where you point your camera. Battaglia understands everything and yet she perseveres because the Mafia “causes so much poverty.” And so in essence she risks her life to help the poor. For outsiders Battaglia’s photos are art; for those involved, they’re evidence.

She was married at 16. Like everyone else, Bataglia’s life was completely under the control of men -- she claims convent school made her an atheist. But the beautiful, strong-willed Sicilian somehow made it to school in Switzerland, where, in the words of a friend, “she attracted men like flypaper.” When she found work at a newspaper she was the first female press photographer in Italy. At first she shot everyday subjects, but something changed after she witnessed her first murder.

“I can feel the violence on my skin,” says Battaglia. “I look at my photos, and it’s just blood, blood, blood.” After capturing such sights as a corpse with a rock jammed into his mouth, or a pair of eyeballs put into a dead man’s hand, she received death threats, got her camera smashed, and was spat on. Photographing mob funerals was especially dangerous because family and known associates didn’t want the publicity.

During this time the local crime bosses included Salvatore “Totò” Riina from Corleone, Luciano Liggia (who allegedly always did his own killing), and Tommaso Buscetta, aka “The Boss of the Two Worlds,” who turned state informant in the 1980s. Prosecutors and judges were assassinated. Battaglia snapped more than 600,000 often grisly images in that period, for the leftwing newspaper L’Ora. Eventually she came to the point where she couldn’t go on taking photos, and according to her, that hurt.

As filmmaker Longinotto’s camera trails along behind her, Battaglia these days enjoys going out in those same mean streets, greeting friends and supporters she has known for years. Palermo is trying to change. Crime bosses are being put on trial, prompted by civic unrest against Cosa Nostra and its government enablers. And yet her dramatic photography of “the old days” still speaks volumes, in the same general vein as New York’s notorious Weegee, but without the humor. There’s nothing funny about Sicily’s organized crime, yet Shooting the Mafia documents it without flinching. For Battaglia, the candor is part of an expression of hope for the future.

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