Monday, April 05, 2010

Movie Review: They Killed Sister Dorothy

Taking Lyrad's suggestion, I sat down and watched They Killed Sister Dorothy last night. The documentary traces the murder of American nun Dorothy Stang in the Brazilian Amazon, and is subtly divided into three parts: the first deals with her efforts to create a new type of sustainable land-holding for the poor in the Amazon in the face of local opposition, culminating in her murder; the second part focuses on the trial of the poor gunmen accused in the murder; and the third (and longest) part focuses on the trial of a ranch-owner accused of hiring the gunmen to kill Stang. However, the documentary is far from blocky; the directors and editors do a spectacular job threading the three stories together so that it flows seamlessly, even while the three acts play out.

The background is fairly straightforward: Stang had begun mission work in Brazil in the 1960s, and had developed a plan of sustainable development in which the landless were given land to own. They could farm and clear 20% of this land as they deemed appropriate, but the other 80% (composed of rainforest) was to remain untouched. The program, or "PDS" (Sustainable Development Plan) would thus simultaneously allow landless to gain access to their own plots and prevent the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest. Stang's program received nominal support from the federal government, but also met with widespread opposition in the state of Para, as both ranchers and poor farmers were openly antagonistic to Stang and to her plan, ultimately leading to her murder.

The two gunmen involved in the murder are quickly arrested, as is a middle-man who allegedly set up the murder, and they are quickly found guilty. This is unsurprising, as anybody who studies any part of Brazil knows that the legal system is really two systems in one; a legal system for the poor, who are unable to afford wealthy lawyers, lack political connections, and are quickly condemned; and the wealthy, who are often connected to political elites (especially in states like Para), can afford elite lawyers, and who usually walk. What is curious in the Stang case is that the lawyers for Vitalmiro Bastos Moura ("Bita"), the ranch owner accused of contracting the murder, also offered his services to the poor gunmen who could not begin to pay for his services. Both gunmen refuse the lawyer's services in the 11th hour, though, suspecting they're being set up as fall guys by the lawyer so that Bita can walk free. Both gunmen admit to the killing and are sentenced, but not before implicating Bita in the murder of Stang.

This situation sets up the last half of the documentary, which focuses on Bita's trial. After admitting in their own trials that Bita had contracted the gunmen, they then say in Bita's trial that he never contracted them, and that they had acted on their own, thereby contradicting their own admissions in the earlier trial (apparently, perjury charges either do not exist in Brazil's legal system, or operate differently, I'm not sure). As the trial proceeds, Bita's conviction looks increasingly unlikely, as his lawyers raise numerous issues, including allegations (which seem patently absurd by this point in the narrative) that Dorothy had contracted murders of people in the region herself, the arrival of the FBI in questioning the gunmen, and perhaps most importantly, the defense lawyer appealing to Brazilian nationalism by portraying Stang as part of an American imperialist project that wanted to colonize its own state in the Amazon and deny Brazilians the right to their own land and to use it as they want. This aspect of the argument was particularly brilliant (if offensive), because it very well could have worked; Brazilians of all political stripes are extremely suspicious of foreign groups trying to save the Amazon, be they NGOs, government organizations, or individuals. Even the most politically astute and aware will often fly into blind suspicions and accuse NGOs of just working for the government so that the "First World" can further exploit Brazil. These arguments sometimes are nearly sensible ("why does the rest of the world get to tell us how to use our land when we can't tell the United States, or Russia, or China, how to use theirs?"), but they are often illogical or inconsistent. Nonetheless, it is one of the ways in which national identity affects Brazilians throughout the political spectrum, and by appealing to that nationalism and suspicion of the U.S., the defense lawyers were making a very astute move. I don't want to give too much away, but I'll say this: as the trial continues, I couldn't help but be wrapped up by the suspense the film-makers create, actually feeling my blood rush a bit faster as it reached the climax, even though I knew the outcome. To me, that speaks of the highest ability to weave a story and get viewers invested, and in that regard, the film was a magnificent success.

One of the more interesting aspects to me was seeing just how Brazil's criminal legal system functions in trials. I had my own extensive experience with the Brazilian legal system, but it was much different than the one the movie documents. It was noticably different, ranging from the ways in which witnesses were addressed to the set-up of the court itself (the charged sits isolated in the middle of the floor in front of the tribunal, separated from his defense, though apparently they can still consult him during the trial). It offered a fascinating insight into how different legal systems function, raising as many questions in my mind about how the U.S. system functions as how Brazil's does.

I had a hard time finding any flaws with the film. Certainly, as a specialist (of the dictatorship, no less), I was very curious about what Para was like in the 1960s, and how the military dictatorship might have responded to Stang's (or others like her) arrival (if they were even aware of it). I also would have liked more individual interviews with the poor in the area, both in favor of and against Stang, to get a more diverse understanding of why they viewed her the way they did, but admittedly, that's not the film's focus, and we do get a decent sampling of those voices in the first part of the film; I was just interested in getting to even more of those voices (though perhaps it will just have to wait for my own or somebody else's research).

But these are hardly serious "complaints" that undermine the quality of the film. It speaks highly of the depth and lucidity of the documentary that there are many aspects of the film I haven't even begun to go into: the legal roadblocks that Stang's friends and family encounter in their search for justice; the living conditions, hopes, and fears of those poor families who are a part of the PDS; the sheer sliminess of Bita's lawyers, who clearly overwhelm the poorly-paid prosecutors as representative of how the wealthy benefit in Brazil's justice system; and many other aspects. The movie manages to cram a lot of detail and information into the narrative while never overloading the senses or overwhelming the viewer with information, making it an excellent documentary for specialists on Brazil even while being completely accessible to everyday viewers. I cannot recommend this film strongly enough, whether you're interested in the environment, social justice, Latin America, legal suspense (the story outdoes anything most authors of crime/legal suspense novels could ever offer, even when you know the outcome), or just the documentary format.