It’s very hard to survive when you irritate people in that region.
— Americo Leal
“Dorothy really loved the forest, and she would walk around for hours. It was like walking around in God’s arms.” As Sister Becky Spires remembers her friend and colleague, Sister Dorothy Stang, the camera in They Killed Sister Dorothy hovers over a footpath leading through green, verdant foliage. It’s an image both elegiac and eerie, imagining the embrace Spires describes while also alluding to the last moments of Stang’s life, as she was gunned down in Anapú, Pará, Brazil, surrounded by trees and sky and the sounds of insects, on 12 February 2005.
Seventy-three-year-old Sister Dorothy hailed from Dayton, Ohio and became a naturalized Brazilian citizen in order to live and work with local farmers. As the film begins, her brother David sits aboard a plane, gazing out the window at clouds. “I’m going to Brazil because that’s where my sister is,” he says. “My sister was murdered there and I’m going to her grave. There are things that you just do, you don’t think about whether you can or can’t, you just do.” David’s difficult journey provides a basic structure for Daniel Junge’s documentary, as he seeks the story of Dorothy’s death and attends the ensuing courtroom prosecutions of her killers.
A member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur order, the woman who became known to some as the “Angel of the Amazon” found herself among the peasants of Anapú. Working tirelessly against deforestation, she helped the farmers to lay claim to acres of land under the Sustainable Development Project (PDS). The first settlement she helped to organize was “modest,” according to narrator Martin Sheen, just 600 families. And yet it threatened their opponents, loggers and ranchers who also claimed the land, rejecting PDS and proclaiming Sister Dorothy “persona non grata.” If she was beloved by the people she worked with — including federal prosecutor Felicio Pontes, who oversaw the legal aspects of implanting PDS — she was reviled by others. One man suggests she got what she deserved, that “She was dragged down by her own claws.”
Even as this sweaty-faced, fierce interviewee reveals the upset Dorothy inspired, he also exemplifies the irrationality and desperation of her opponents, whose numbers include the self-confessed shooter, Rayfran Sales, interviewed in prison alongside the two men who accompanied him on that day, Clodoaldo Batista and Amair “Tato” Feijoli. The camera focuses on their folded hands, in restless motion as each man speaks. “She stopped to talk to us,” says Batista, “And then she brought up the issue of the land, that we needed to leave because we were polluting the environment.” His memory sounds rehearsed, as do those of the other men. When Tato says he asked, “Would you have the courage to kill the Sister?”, Rayfran adds, as if on cue, “That’s when I decided to do it. Kill her.” Here the film inserts videotape of the men’s reenactment of the crime, at the scene, in slow motion close-up.
“He emptied his gun into her,” the prosecutor asserts during a courtroom scene. As David and Dorothy’s fellow sisters watch the reenactment footage, their faces reflect their devastation as the film cuts to still photos of her body, ravaged by the seven bullets, plus an eighth in her head, the one that killed her. This brutality is set alongside the repeatedly smug demeanor of another defendant, the wealthy rancher Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, also known as “Bida” (or “Buddha”). Introduced as he is named a co-conspirator in Dorothy’s murder, Bida is defended by the similarly iniquitous Americo Leal, whom Sheen says regularly defends loggers. Leal’s team appears downright sinister as they joke about the upcoming process, including the selection of a jury, whom Leal describes as easy to dupe and “illiterate, just like Bida.”
The rancher’s defense includes the presentation of papers, xeroxes of so-called contracts, that he claims represent his legal claims to the land; after he speaks in court, the film includes an archival interview with Sister Dorothy, as she rejects such documents out of hand. Even as this repeated technique appears to let Dorothy to engage her adversaries, it also indicates the chaotic nature of legal procedures throughout the case. The defense intimidates witnesses (Batista, who claims at first he was hired to commit the murder, shows up one day with his face smashed, having been locked in a closet with another prisoner who used a “broken broomstick” on him, refusing to testify the next day). Leal explains away such turns of events as the way of the legal world in Brazil. “This justice stuff,” he says, “is pretty complicated. If you look through a window and see infinity, you don’t know where it begins or ends. The trees and the stars: you can’t understand it, like you can’t understand justice.”
Indeed. The defense associates Sister Dorothy with “Americans,” who invade countries and provoke violence the world over, citing Iraq and specifically Abu Ghraib by way of example. “It’s in their DNA,” argues the attorney, as the camera turns to jurors, their faces grim, then to her friends and brother in the courtroom audience, looking frustrated and anguished. Though the court case ends with Bida’s conviction, They Killed Sister Dorothy notes in a coda that he was soon free and is now back in business. As it traces such turns, the film underscores Dorothy’s courage in standing up to these forces, while also continuing her fight, agitating against the pervasive and ongoing corruption that allows such injustice. If this “stuff” is complicated, it is also wrong.