They Killed Sister Dorothy: HBO's Book of Martyrs

By Craig Detweiler 03-27-2009

From Joan of Arc to Sir Thomas More, courageous martyrs continue to inspire us. Their powerful witness is memorialized in homilies, books, and even movies. Yet, it is far too tempting to consider martyrdom an ancient virtue. The film They Killed Sister Dorothy, which premieres on HBO this month, is about modern martyr Sister Dorothy Stang, who organized farmers and peasants into the Sustainable Development Project (PDS) in Brazil's Amazon forest. She also challenged logging interests that threatened the Brazilian rain forest. For that she was murdered -- shot in the back in the nation she served as a missionary for more than 30 years.

They Killed Sister Dorothy is far more than a hagiography for "the Angel of the Amazon." We follow her brother and sister, also Roman Catholic missionaries, in the pursuit of justice amidst corrupt courtrooms and shameless lawyers. Director Daniel Junge's riveting documentary brings Dorothy's heart for her community, fight for economic opportunity, and concern for the environment into vivid detail. Prepare to be humbled, angered, and inspired.

Dorothy grew up in Dayton, Ohio (also home to the narrator of Sister Dorothy, actor Martin Sheen). Her brother, David, recalls how they both took their vows in an earlier era of social action. She arrived in Brazil as a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur in 1967. "Dot" issued early (and frequent) warnings about the fragile state of the rainforest. Her Christian convictions informed her passionate defense of God's creation. Hope arose within the local farmers of Esperanza along with Dorothy's call for land reform. When a well-heeled cabal of loggers and ranchers issued a series of threats, Dorothy's resolve only deepened. They could not dissuade one gentle, faith-fueled nun.

Three men hired to take out Dorothy stand trial. It becomes clear that "they" represent a much larger web of corruption and power that subverts the legal system in Para, Brazil. A particularly brazen defense lawyer puts Dorothy's intentions on trial, even from her grave. Junge does a remarkable job sticking his camera into the courtroom proceedings. The vivid arguments presented by both sides make the fictional drama of Law and Order look mundane by comparison. Can Dorothy's death create a rare opportunity for justice in the lawless state of Para?

I had the privilege of interviewing Junge of Just Media at the recent City of the Angels Film Festival in Hollywood. We discussed the power of film to promote social change. Dorothy's brother, Tom Stang, joined us onstage after the screening. Tom struggled to put words to his feelings for Dot. In that silence, we all shared a holy moment, grieving over the loss of such a heroic servant of God. He ultimately concluded, "Dorothy was a true daughter of the Catholic church. She gave herself to save planet Earth and the people she loved." We desperately need people like Sister Dorothy to fight for the marginalized, to care for our ecosystem, and to build a sustainable future.

It is far too easy to confine saints to history. We may not share Dorothy's call to serve overseas. But vibrant, compassionate, and fearless faith is needed in every community. They Killed Sister Dorothy reminds us that martyrdom remains a shockingly contemporary virtue.

Craig Detweiler is a filmmaker who directs the Reel Spirituality Institute for the Brehm Center at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. His latest book is Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century.

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