A Very Sicilian Justice

This week's Culture Digest focuses on the power of documentaries: first up, an interview with the producer of a film profiling a Sicilian judge called ‘the most threatened man in Italy’

Jennifer Higgie  Your new film A Very Sicilian Justice – which you produced and which is narrated by Helen Mirren – is a portrait of the Sicilian judge Antonino Di Matteo. As chief prosecutor in a trial alleging conspiracy between the Mafia and the state, he has more than 20 bodyguards and is known as the most threatened man in Italy. What inspired you and director Paul Sapin to make this documentary?

Toby Follett  Over the years I have been lucky enough to meet a number of Italian prosecutors investigating the Mafia and political corruption. I was shocked by the restricted lives they and their families are forced to lead. These courageous men and women often receive vicious personal attacks from politicians and the media outlets they influence or – in the case of Berlusconi, a notorious judiciary-baiter – actually own. 

We wanted to know what inspired these prosecutors to put their lives and reputations at risk and give up so much of their freedom. How could this scandalous situation endure in one of the most advanced democracies in the world? When we heard about Di Matteo we felt that his situation deserved international attention.

JH  What were the logistics of making the film?

TF  Keeping Di Matteo safe is, above all, about being unpredictable. This often resulted in hours of waiting around to film. Routes would be switched at the last minute; a forward-team recceing for explosives or snipers might spot a suspicious package or individual. There is also a pervasive air of paranoia in Palermo. The tales you hear are so outlandish – mafia infiltration of the judiciary, corrupt policemen, spies everywhere –  that you’re never quite sure what you can say in confidence to anyone.
As the relationship developed, Di Matteo eventually invited us to visit his country home, a journey he very rarely makes as it’s in a remote, Mafia-dominated region; Mafia informers recently revealed it had been identified as a good place to carry out an attack. Around 20 agents were involved in getting Di Matteo, and us, safely to and from his home. We later learned that up to 30 more security agents had been placed as lookouts in the villages we passed through.

The finer details of how we managed to plan the film have to remain secret. Sicily continues to be in the grip of Mafia culture but it is also a land of tremendously brave and self-sacrificing citizens and public servants who are prepared to risk everything to get the story out. 

dsc00529_23944995056_o.jpg

Sicilian judge Antonino Di Matteo, chief prosecutor in a trial alleging conspiracy between the Mafia and the Italian state

JH  A Very Sicilian Justice was first broadcast on Al Jazeera on 18 July. What kind of a response has it generated?

TF  On the whole, a fantastic one – lots of jaws have hit floors – and some great reviews (in both English and Italian media sources). But the mainstream press in Italy appears to be shockingly uninterested in Di Matteo’s plight. Many Italians who have seen the film tell us that this is the first they have heard of the story and are as appalled as we are that it is not more widely known. 

JH  Do you believe that documentaries can be instrumental in effecting change?

TF  Film – both documentary and fiction – is one of the most powerful ways of bringing an issue home to an audience. Many recent documentaries have had a demonstrable impact on a range of topics. Some of the best are: Citizenfour (2014), Laura Poitras’s documentary has brought the legitimacy of state surveillance debate into public consciousness and revealed shocking details of state intrusion into our lives; Virunga (2014), Orlando von Einsiedel’s brave film forced an oil company to agree to limit drilling in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – the battle continues, but as a result of this film, environmentalists are now far better armed to protect the park – and Blackfish (2013). SeaWorld suffered a PR disaster after this film (directed and produced by Gabriela Cowperthwaite) revealed its mistreatment of its captive killer whales. Despite the company’s early protestations, it has now radically changed its practices.

The ten-episode documentary Making a Murderer (2015) (written and directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos) has revealed the disturbing underbelly of the US judicial system. Brendan Dassey’s overturned conviction marks the third time in 18 months that a TV show or podcast has helped alter the course of a criminal case.

Whether or not our film will make any difference is impossible to know. However, A Very Sicilian Justice will continue to be available online, and will be shown in Italian schools, film festivals and in anti-mafia conferences in years to come. All part, I hope, of a modest tributary leading to an ocean of future change!

The trial Di Matteo is prosecuting is known as the ‘State-Mafia Deal Trial’. There should be a verdict in early 2017. Read more about the trial and the making of the film at the A Very Sicilian Justice Al Jazeera page.

Toby Follett is an artist, writer and filmmaker who lives in London, UK. 

Jennifer Higgie is the editorial director of frieze.

Most Read

The extraordinary life of the late, great, gallerist and collector Alexander Iolas
Various venues, New York, USA
At a time of instantaneous information and fetishized immersivity, artists are evoking scent as an alchemical, bodily...
With her current show at Gasworks, London, the Kuwaiti artist shares some influential images
20 years after Hong Kong’s handover to China, a new generation of artists dive into the city-state’s unknown futures...
‘Klassensprachen’ engaged artists, writers and publishers in soul-searching around the interlinking of class, language...
In lieu of institutional support, artists are working together to achieve a remarkable self-sufficiency
From being citizens to lovers, the most important things in life can’t be professionalized. Is it time for some...
From an inflatable anti-capitalist dragon to the shattered shadow of Robert Burns: highlights from this year’s...
Former South Korean officials sentenced for ‘artist blacklist’ involvement; Australia’s Archibald Prize attracts...
 A visit to Belgrade for the first exhibition produced as part of Balkan Projects
The city’s Academy of the Arts of the World embraces 'pluriversality' as a counter to an increasingly toxic discourse...
The Mosaic Rooms, London, UK
From usual haunts to exhibitions off the beaten path, the best current shows around town
The City of London’s annual sculpture park reveals the complex interplay between global corporations, urban space and ‘...
Taro Okamoto, Sun God, installed in Osaka
A recent show traces the creative legacies of an artist and an architect who helped shape Japan’s futurist aspirations
Friends and mentors of the artist Khadija Saye pay tribute to an extraordinary talent
Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy
The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art inaugurates its biennial artists’ award with a show marked by the idea of...
More vandalism at Skulptur Projekte Münster; Centre Pompidou to open a satellite space in Shanghai; Off Vendome and...
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA
Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964, mixed media collage and graphite on board, 22 x 30 cm. Courtesy: © Romare Bearden Foundation / DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2017
Successfully layering a broader socio-historical narrative onto a period of radical non-conformity, this is an...
Trump’s trashing of the Paris Climate Accord makes it clear: we can't be satisfied with art about the political, art...
Q: What do you like the look of? A: Someone who knows who they are
With a strong surrealist strain, and including a welcome number of female artists, highlights from the 48th edition of...
A guide to the best of the summer shows
Agnes Gund awards USD$500,000 to New York’s Parrish Art Museum; Istanbul’s Rampa gallery closes; Gwangju Biennale...
With our increasingly porous objects, ubiquitous networks and ambivalent organisms, why artists are drawing inspiration...
From contemporary ink to counter-cultural histories, what to see across the Taiwanese capital
Nicholas Serota calls for freedom of movement to be protected after Brexit; Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi resigns from DiEM25;...
Who is Françoise Nyssen?
Protests against housing inequality, tourism and a colonialist past have been roiling across the Catalan capital

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2017

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017