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. 

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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.

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