The producer Niamh Fagan went on holiday to Sicily with her children and ended up visiting a little museum in Corleone which was exhibiting all the photographs taken over many years by Italian photographer Letizia Battaglia of the victims of Mafia shootings. Fagan was blown away by the power of the pictures and contacted Longinotto to tell her about them. The British director was immediately fascinated.
“I just thought what an amazing story of bravery, really,” Longinotto says of Battaglia. “Then, the more I started exploring and finding out about the Mafia, the more I was really humbled by the story of all these ordinary people who had stood up to the Mafia and how we never hear about them.”
The director’s view of the Mafia had been “completely skewed” by The Godfather and the Hollywood version of the stories. “I don’t think I realised quite how much propaganda it was, putting this image of these beautiful young men…these rather dignified, beautifully dressed, rather glamorous people and then, the more you go into the story of the Mafia, you actually realise [how] they are incredibly cowardly and that all they care about is power.”
Longinotto heard the grim stories about children kept in captivity, tortured and then killed. She realised that real-life Mafia gangsters were not men of honour at all but low-lifes interested in nothing other than maintaining their power. “Their whole ethos is based on based on avarice and hate.”
She adds, incidentally, that she is desperate to see Martin Scorsese’s new gangster movie The Irishman. “But I will hate myself for it!”
The director talks of the tell-tale details in Battaglia’s photographs – for example, the mechanic in his work overalls shot in his own garage still holding the rag he was using to clean a car. This is the side of Mafia violence overlooked in the gangster movies.
Many of Longinotto’s documentaries feature strong women, for example the lawyers in Sisters In Law (2005) or the carers in Rough Aunties (2008). Battaglia is a figure cast in a similar mould, albeit one with a Fellini-esque glamour. She dresses as if plucked from the set of La Dolce Vita. She has a much younger lover, something which raise eyebrows in a patriarchal society like that of Sicily. In pursuit of the Mafia, she has spent more than 20 years always putting her work first, risking the fury of her family. She also has an admirable frankness. “I love it when she says ‘ if people don’t like the way I live, they can fuck off.’”
The director can see “the incredible empathy” Battaglia felt for the subjects of her images. At the same time, she realises that the photographer is “a cold, watchful artist” who knows precisely how to frame her pictures.
“As she says in the film, it is a really hard thing to do. Particularly if somebody has just been shot, if it’s a child or a mother is grieving…” Longinotto is careful not to zoom in on these pictures. She wants her audience to appetite the skill of the composition and to look at the images as a whole, not just selected parts of it.
Battaglia forces viewers to consider the impact of the murders. Her photos aren’t just about the moments of violence but about their after effects.
One Mafia member told Battaglia she had no morals. Longinotto was gobsmacked by the hypocrisy of such a statement. Cold-blooded killers who’ve destroyed the lives of many families feel entitled to lecture the photographer simply because she doesn’t lead a conventional private life. “That’s when you realise how really skewed the Mafia way of thinking is.”
For all her bravado, the photographer doesn’t like to watch herself on screen. After a recent screening, Longinotto took part in a Q&A alongside Battaglia. “Somebody asked her, ‘What do you think of the film, Letizia?’ And she looked at me. She gave me one of those looks…she said, “Kim, I do like the film. I love the film otherwise I wouldn’t be here. But it is so… embarrassing!”
Longinotto is often described as a cinema verité filmmaker, working in the same tradition as directors like the Maysles brothers, DA Pennekbaker, Fred Wiseman, Ricky Leacock et all. Right from the start of her career, she knew she wanted to work with a small crew and to “do my own camera.” She wanted her subjects to look at her, not at the sound recordist, and for the audience to feel as close as possible to the people she was filming.
“All the films I’ve made, when I think about it, I couldn’t have done them with more than one person. Often, we are filming people in the back of a car,” is how Longinotto reflects on the Direct Cinema-style approach she has always favoured anyway. Like her illustrious predecessors, she uses lightweight cameras, synched sound and sets a premium on mobility. She wants anyone watching her films to feel they “are the camera. You’re going into places, you are looking and you are moving.”
However, unlike some of the revered older verité directors, Longinotto is always ready to step out from behind the camera and to intervene if the situation calls for it. She can’t stand by in an aloof, fly on the wall-like way, shooting dispassionately, while others are suffering in front of her.
“What I am trying to do is much closer to fiction in a way. I want you to feel you are in the room with me.” She’ll never pretend that she is invisible. When somebody talks to her, she talks back. If a subject looks directly at the camera, that is not a problem. She wants her work to be warm and involving. “Too often, documentaries repel you by being slightly opaque,” she suggests, citing voice-overs and other devices which distance viewers from the subject matter.
“The films I love have a lightness of touch. They’re telling you something to the heart,” she says, citing fictional dramas by Lukas Moodysson and Jafar Panahi. “I don’t think I’ve seen many documentaries that actually achieve that…”