They Killed Sister Dorothy
HBO film documents her life and quest for justice
For thirty years Sister Dorothy Stang, SNDdeN, and her community worked with the poor in the rain forest of the Amazon basin in Anapu, Para’, Brazil. When wealthy cattle ranchers began destroying huge areas of the rain forest to make way for grazing land, Sr. Dorothy became active in the Brazilian government’s Sustainable Development Project, also called PDS. She also became a Brazilian citizen.
The PDS gave grants of government land to sustenance farmers with the proviso that they farm a percentage of the land for food and leave the rest as forest. At the same time, far from federal oversight, the landowners who were responsible for deforestation fraudulently gave plots of land to employees in order to retain control of the forest. This created tension and conflict between the ranchers and the farmers who were supported by Sr. Dorothy.
She frequently wore a t-shirt that said in Portuguese: “The death of the forest is the end of our life.”
On February 12, 2005, two men approached Sister Dorothy as she walked toward a meeting. One of them asked if she was armed to which she responded that her only weapon would be the Bible. She began to read the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit….” One of the men then shot the 73 year-old Sister Dorothy six times, killing her.
They Killed Sister Dorothy is an enthralling account of Sister Dorothy’s death and the capture and trials of her killers.
The film, which has already won numerous awards at film festivals, was screened at the City of Angels Film Festival in Los Angeles on March 1. In addition to director and filmmaker Daniel Junge, Tom Stang, one of Sister Dorothy’s younger twin brothers, was present.
“You think that you can get over something like this, but you never really do,” Mr. Stang told the audience. “It is truly amazing that my sister really gave her life for all of us. How many of us truly live our lives according to our beliefs? The evil you see in this film is unbelievable. Those of us who care about planet earth know that we are in peril. My sister stood up. And I applaud all of you who want to save our planet earth.”
Director Daniel Junge (The Iron Ladies of Liberia) told the audience that he read about Sr. Dorothy’s murder in the New York Times. “The story of a 73-year old nun murdered in the rain forest got my attention. So I called the Dayton newspaper, Sister Dorothy’s hometown, and asked a reporter if there was anyone in the family I could speak to. She suggested (Father) David, a Maryknoll missionary and Tom’s twin. Ten days later we were on a plane to Brazil.”
Within days of Sr. Dorothy’s murder, three men were arrested and admitted to the crime. The greater part of the film is taken up with legal proceedings against the men, appeals, depositions, and trials. Junge admits that the media, including his crew, got extraordinary, if not unbelievable access to both prosecution and defense interviews and courtroom proceedings. The most surprising aspect of the film is the manner in which local or state courts in Brazil conduct business. It is pure theater, and justice seems elusive. Junge noted, “These characters (lawyers, judges, ranchers) were a pure gift to a filmmaker. We could not have scripted them; no one would have believed it.”
The footage of the soft-spoken Sister Dorothy, one of eight children of German-Irish parents, shows a gentle woman determined to do the right thing for the common good of the local community, of Brazil, her adopted country, and of the world. “Dot got her love for nature from my dad,” explained Tom Stang. “We had had nuns and priests in our family so it was normal for us to consider a religious vocation. We wanted to do something meaningful with our lives. We were products of the 1960s and we believed we could make a difference.”
One thing that I noted was that there were no clergy visible nor was the local bishop, Dom Erwin Krautler, quoted in any way that demonstrated the support of the local church for Sr. Dorothy and her ministry. Daniel Junge assured me, however, that Krautler has been and is an outspoken advocate for justice for Sr. Dorothy and her work (see America, March 2, 2009). Religious in the area, including the bishop, continue to receive death threats. Krautler, in fact, now has limited police protection.
When asked how the making of this film had changed him, Junge responded that he was raised Catholic and “I have never been more proud of being a Catholic than during the making of this film. This story represents the best of what it means to be a Catholic. To see these completely selfless women giving of themselves to the betterment of humanity is news that doesn’t always get told.”
The film will premiere on HBO on March 25; check local listings for time.
For more information: They Killed Sister Dorothy
Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles and the film/tv columnist for St. Anthony Messenger magazine.