Hot Docs ’19: Mark Franchetti on betraying the Mafia in “Our Godfather”

The Mafia was all that Tomasso Buscetta knew. Raised in a poverty-stricken area of Palermo, Italy and the youngest of 17 children, Buscetta joined the Sicilian Mafia – otherwise known as ...
April 25, 2019

The Mafia was all that Tomasso Buscetta knew.

Raised in a poverty-stricken area of Palermo, Italy and the youngest of 17 children, Buscetta joined the Sicilian Mafia – otherwise known as Cosa Nostra – at the age of 17 where he cut his teeth with cigarette smuggling.

Growing increasingly disillusioned following the murder of a number of allies and family members, including two sons, Buscetta – a Cosa Nostra boss known as Don Masino – turned state’s witness after more than 40-years in the crime organization.

In 1986, under the escort of armored military cars and heavy police presence, the Italian gangster entered a specially constructed Sicilian bunker-courtroom to provide crucial testimony at the Maxi Trial that dismantled the romanticized notions of the crime syndicate and led to the conviction of 475 mafiosi across both Italy and the U.S. in the largest anti-mafia operation since World War II. His betrayal made him the Mafia’s most wanted man and the most endangered witness in U.S. criminal history. As a reward for his help, Buscetta was sent to the U.S. under a new identity and citizenship in the Witness Protection Program, where he remained until his death in New York in 2000.

That’s the premise of Mark Franchetti and Andrew Meier’s feature-length film Our Godfather, which enjoys its world premiere at Hot Docs ’19 in the Special Presentations category. Kew Media Distribution is the sales company.

A Black Earth Films and Phenomen Trust production, the 93-minute film melds together never-before-seen home videos, emotional interviews from Buscetta’s wife and surviving children, and courtroom archive footage to provide insight into the unforgiving world of organized crime.

The filmmakers realized they had a story on their hands when they discovered that Buscetta’s entire family had disappeared 30 years ago under witness protection and had never told the patriarch’s story from the family’s perspective.

“This man turns after 40 years in Cosa Nostra and it’s what makes him fascinating, but we were also fascinated by what happens to him and his family afterwards,” says the Moscow-based Franchetti, a co-director and co-producer on the film.

“We realized there was a huge chunk of his story that needed to be told.”

Over the course of the three-year filming process, Franchetti and Meier trekked to parts of America, Italy and Brazil in an attempt to gain access to the surviving Buscetta family (the former mob boss had eight children from three different women).

“At the beginning, we thought if we could track down his widow, if she’s interesting and would agree to go on camera, we probably have a film there,” recalls Franchetti. “After a year of research and reaching out we found some retired DEA agents who had been close to the family. They eventually gave us the name that the family had used in the last 30 years. That’s how we were first able to find Christina, Tommaso Buscetta’s widow, and reach out to her.”

Importantly, says Franchetti, Our Godfather was a purely independent production shot solely with private equity, which freed the filmmaking duo to chase certain elements and storylines they felt crucial to the film at their leisure.

For instance, after the team had what they believed to be a good rough cut, the film was screened to various industry executives for feedback and notes. When the filmmakers felt they needed to break up the structure and spend another few weeks editing with editor David Charap, the team was able to do that.

“The big challenge for us was do you tell the story chronologically so it’s going to take 40 to 50 minutes before you get to the home video footage, or do you break up the narrative structure? How do you tell the story without the viewer getting lost? It was finding the right narrative structure to a very complicated story,” Franchetti explains.

In the end, the filmmakers deemed fragmenting the narrative structure to be the best approach, as it allowed for never-before-seen home video, family photographs and courtroom archive to be incorporated early on and throughout the storyline in a cohesive manner.

“In this particular story, where Buscetta giving evidence in court, you can’t beat it. It’s the real thing, it’s extremely dramatic and unique,”Franchetti says. “Same thing with some of the retaliation murders that took place – I spent a lot of time in the archives in Sicily looking for those little bits and there’s nothing better than having the real bit of footage.

“It took three years to make and it was very much a labor of love and a marathon.”

  • Our Godfather enjoys its world premiere at Hot Docs in the Special Presentations category on Sunday, April 28 at 9 p.m. ET at Toronto’s Hart House Theatre. Visit the festival’s website for complete screening info.
  • Check out a trailer from the film below:

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