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They Killed Sister Dorothy (2008).

They Killed Sister Dorothy (2008).

Directed by Daniel Junge.

Distributed by First Run Features 94 minutes.

On February 12, 2005, in the Brazilian town of Anapu, 73-year old-Catholic nun, missionary worker, and environmental activist Dorothy Stang was shot multiple times at point-blank range. Two local men of questionable character quickly confessed to the murder. However, other activists suspected that wealthy ranchers hired the killers. There had been much strife between commercial ranching and logging interests and this Catholic missionary. Stang had facilitated a Brazilian government program of low-scale, sustainable agriculture farmed by peasants on land in the Amazon rainforest. Ranchers and loggers, however, contended that the land was privately owned and thus could not be used for the government project. They Killed Sister Dorothy develops a persuasive argument that these conflicts over land led to Stang's murder.

Directed by Daniel Junge and narrated by Martin Sheen, They Killed Sister Dorothy won the jury and audience awards at the 2008 South by Southwest festival and aired on HBO. Junge's documentary reveals much of the controversy surrounding Stang's work through her brother's attempt to seek justice after her murder, weaving together interviews with Stang's acquaintances, trial testimony, and footage of the missionary in Brazil. The film also provides brief background information on the importance of rainforests for maintaining biological diversity. In an effort to provide balance in an otherwise favorable portrayal of Stang's efforts, They Killed Sister Dorothy includes interviews with locals who opposed her environmental advocacy and promotion of sustainable agriculture.

Although They Killed Sister Dorothy chronicles Stang's environmental endeavors in the Amazon rainforest, the focus is on the legal efforts to both prosecute and defend the ranchers allegedly responsible for her murder. In an interview, Junge stated that, "I think people are most surprised by our access to the defense team, and, in fact, at times, I myself was surprised by their candor." Much of this footage is disturbing: Members of the defense team, led by Americo Leal--an attorney with a reputation for defending high profile ranchers--are seen mocking the deceased Stang, flippantly referring to the jury members as "illiterates," and even insulting their client. In the courtroom, Leal claimed that Stang was an agent for the "Americans," the same people who invaded Iraq and have "violence" in "their DNA." "It is ironic," noted fellow missionary, Sister Becky Spires, that the defense associated Stang with United States policies that Stang herself had criticized. Equally disquieting are Leal's comments in reference to a witness for the prosecution who was intimidated and beaten in jail: "This justice stuff is pretty complicated. If you look through a window and see infinity, you don't know where it begins or ends."

The contrast between the sinister Leal and the virtuous Stang is so salient that viewers could form an incomplete understanding of the issues involving the Amazon forests. Junge commented that, "if people walk away from our film with only the portrait of a sweet nun and some evil men then I've done this story a great disservice," because there have been "systematic failures" to stop "the destruction of the forest and loss of human life in the Amazon." To avoid this "great disservice," however, it would have been helpful to provide more context for the political controversies of Amazon rainforest politics. Brazil is pulled in contrary directions: On the one hand, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has vowed to help landless families acquire small plots of land through sustainable agricultural projects. On the other hand, Brazil's commitment to economic growth and need to repay the substantial loans from the International Monetary Fund which facilitated that growth have encouraged opening the rainforest to development. Thus, Stang, in addition to challenging the dominance of the local economic power structure, touched on political issues with implications that reach well beyond the town of Anapu.

Historical context is also limited regarding the role of the Catholic Church in Latin America. From the colonial period to the present, some outspoken members of the Church have sought social justice for the poor and the indigenous populations, at times creating much friction between the Vatican and the Church in Latin America. Stang was part of a tradition with deep roots in Latin America, a tradition that has often resulted in intimidation and death for those willing to confront injustice.

Although greater emphasis on these areas of political and religious background would have provided viewers with a better understanding of the historical context, They Killed Sister Dorothy is nonetheless a compelling film. The political and environmental issues raised are timely, but the question of social and economic justice is timeless.

Lawrence Mastroni

University of Oklahoma
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Author:Mastroni, Lawrence
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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