Case Number 17878: Small Claims Court


First Run Features // 2008 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // December 10th, 2009

The Charge

"A morte da floresta é o fim da nossa vida." [The death of the forest is the end of our life.]

The Case

On February 12, 2005, Sister Dorothy Stang, a missionary who had worked with the poor of Brazil since the late 1960s, was shot dead on her way to a meeting. The individuals responsible for the nun's murder and the reasons why it occurred reveal the greater issues of land use and preservation of the Amazon region, the plight of the poor in the face of ultra-rich ranchers, and a justice system that is all-too-susceptible to coercion and corruption.

The way They Killed Sister Dorothy begins, there's virtually no way one can guess how it will conclude without already knowing the story. Director Daniel Junge lays the film out as a celebration of the life and work of Sister Dorothy, using her brother, David, and his trip to Brazil to see her grave as a backdrop for the story. Junge glorifies Stang to an extreme degree, focusing on the importance of her work on many levels. First, the environmental impact of her conservationist effort, which was the root of both her success and her ultimate downfall. It's not breaking news that the Amazon rainforest is being systematically destroyed by clear-cutting for logging and ranch land. Without the myriad of benefits the Amazon provides, we may not survive as a species. That doesn't stop greedy ranchers from destroying thousands of acres a day so they can fill their bank accounts with cattle money. Stang used an already in place government system that partitioned this acreage between public forest land and private ranch land. These partitions were the basis for collective farms. Stang would organize farmers and their families into sustainable camps where they would harvest the fruits of the forest without contributing to the destruction.

For the farmers and for the environment, such a plan is great. The ranchers, however, have different interests that have little to do with environmental sustainability. The government never enforced those lines they drew between public and private land, so ranch owners annexed the land into their own property without threat of penalty. With Stang working with the land, the people, and the government; the ranch owners' plans for expansion were compromised and the nun became a problem. She had anticipated the threat on her life, but was more than willing to pay whatever price to succeed. Even if it meant her death, she could not leave.

The story of Sister Dorothy up to the point of her death is so positive that it almost seems produced by the Biography Channel. In every way, she is built up to be a saint, a martyr for her cause. She may or may not have been either, but this glowing opening is a dramatic setup for the real story of They Killed Sister Dorothy: the murder trial. Junge was given virtually unlimited access to the trial. Everyone involved, from the attorneys for both sides, the murder suspects, and the families of all concerned get a chance to voice their opinions. More importantly, however, the access given during the trial is absolutely astounding. Never before have I seen a courtroom documentary with footage from behind the judge's bench. Access to everything having to do with the trial was granted. For a filmmaker, it must have been a dream to be able to set up wherever, regardless of the effect it might have on the case. For a fan of actual justice, however, it makes one wonder what kind of kangaroo court was being run here.

That feeling is intensified by the twists in the proceedings and the ridiculous characters in play, few of whom could exist believably in a fiction film. From the suspect, set to testify against higher-ups, who is suddenly transferred into the cell of a violent criminal who just so happens to have a broken broomstick; to the rancher known as "Sleazy"; to Americo Leal, the defense attorney whose bombastic tactics and general ickiness makes the above mentioned nickname more appropriate for him; these are parts of the most lurid crime fiction, yet it all happens before our eyes. This is really great stuff.

First Run Features has done an excellent job with their release of They Killed Sister Dorothy, much better than is the standard for documentary on DVD. The anamorphic image looks excellent, given the source material; there is nothing to argue about in the transfer. All the footage of Stang herself is taken from low-end video, so the image suffers as a result. The new footage, however, is shot digitally and looks suitably crisp and clear. The stereo sound is not dynamic by any means, but it is certainly acceptable. We have more extras than usual for such a documentary, all of them valuable. A commentary with the director and producers is enlightening, and much more lively than I expected from a film of this nature. They talk in amazement about the access they were granted, pointing out particular places they were allowed to go where other media could not. Also mentioned is the strength of character of the nuns and Sister Dorothy's brother. They get time to speak for themselves in two other features, the first from the film's premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival, where the film won the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award. Along with the director, they spend about eight minutes answering questions from the audience and discussing how the struggle has gone since the events of the film. David Stang and Sister Becky Spires, Dorothy's best friend, get more time to speak in more detail with a twelve minute series of questions. A biography and statement from the director and a photo gallery round us out.

They Killed Sister Dorothy is a fantastic documentary with great power and emotional impact. Anybody with interest in Latin American politics, relations between North and South America, environmentalism, or land usage will be especially interested. Even for people who aren't fans of documentaries, if you appreciate a good courtroom drama, this film is a must-see.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

Review content copyright © 2009 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 93

Perp Profile
Studio: First Run Features
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* None

Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Commentary
* Featurette
* Interview
* Photo Gallery
* Statement
* Bio

* IMDb