They Killed Sister Dorothy

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South by Southwest

AUSTIN -- Winner of both the grand jury and audience favorite documentary feature awards at this year's South by Southwest film festival, "They Killed Sister Dorothy" begins modestly, with a TV-friendly presentation of a politically motivated murder.

But the familiar feel (which likely limits commercial prospects to the small screen) eventually gives way to a chunk of footage in the second half that is so captivating it's almost hard to believe.

Narrated by Martin Sheen, "Sister Dorothy" investigates the murder of an American nun and environmentalist who had spent so long in the Brazilian rain forest that she became a citizen of the country. Working for three decades with poverty-level farmers, Dorothy Stang made it her life's work to push forward a governmental initiative aimed at helping Brazilians make a living from small, dedicated plots of forest while sustaining the woodland's overall growth. This happens in an area where even bureaucrats often have no way of knowing whose property claims are legitimate, and the approach to law enforcement is frequently compared to the Wild West. Stang's mission was bound to provoke powerful ranchers whose wealth depended on exploiting vast swaths of land.

Filmmaker Daniel Junge follows Stang's brother David (a missionary himself) as he comes to Brazil to investigate her murder: Men have been charged in what's being described as a spontaneous act of violence, but Dorothy's friends are certain the killers actually were hired by a shadowy network of businessmen who had been trying to intimidate her. Only with great effort is David able to find prosecutors willing to pursue this claim, and even then the outlook is bleak: The ranchers are well connected with local judges and lawyers who erect seemingly impossible barriers to prosecution.

If this story line is blood-boiling, it also resembles many stories of outrage and denied justice -- until we begin to spend time with the lawyers on the other side of the case. Men of such extravagant sliminess that they seem like fictional characters, they have an open contempt for the idea that law should be about justice. It's hard to believe they were so overconfident that they allowed outsiders to film many of their private negotiations.

Getting into the lawyers' office was a coup, but being able to follow them into court -- where the trial is shot with what appears to be a remarkable freedom of access -- is what makes the film worthwhile. There, the defense team engages in tactics so over the top that you wouldn't believe them in a Hollywood drama: They go so far as to paint the victim as a murderous ganglord and try to associate her with Bush administration policies in Iraq and Guantanamo that she had in fact protested.

It's riveting stuff, painting a vivid picture of just what kind of corrupt system Dorothy Stang lost her life opposing.

THEY KILLED SISTER DOROTHY
Just Media
Credits:
Director: Daniel Junge
Producers: Henry Ansbacher, Nigel Noble
Directors of photography: Marcela Bourseau & Daniel Junge
Music: Pedro Bromfman
Editor: Davis Coombe
Running time -- 94 minutes
No MPAA rating
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