EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling directors who have films screening at the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival.
Screening in the Documentary Feature Competition, Daniel Junge‘s “They Killed Sister Dorothy” will be having its world premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival. The doc follows the story of a 73 year-old Catholic nun from Ohio who was shot six times at point blank range and left to die on February 12th, 2005, to ask: Who was this woman, and why was she killed? What will become of her murderers, and who else was involved? What are the implications of her murder and these trials on the future? indieWIRE talked to Junge about the film and his goals for SXSW.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
Film has always been my passion, but I aspired to be a filmmaker after I had the fortune to take a college class with Sydney Pollack. Filmmaking moved from the mythical to a real and tangible process. Following that realization, I took any job I could get from coffee fetcher to assistant director to be in a film environment and learn the craft.
With the advent of new, more accessible technologies like the DV camera, I was able to make “Chiefs,” my first documentary about the Wyoming Indian High School basketball team. The story was incredibly important and personal for me having grown up in Wyoming and played high school basketball. “Chiefs” went on to win best documentary at the 2002 Tribeca Film Festival and later broadcast on PBS.
By virtue of that initial success and by the same “do-it-yourself” ethic, I’ve been able to continue telling stories that are vital and personal to me: a first-amendment rights battle in “Reading Your Rights,” the construction of a major public art installation in “Big Blue Bear,” the creators of the Muppets in Afghanistan in “No Strings,” and refugees returning home in “Come Back To Sudan.”
Most recently, I completed a film about Africa’s first elected female president, “Iron Ladies of Liberia“, which premiered at 2007 Toronto International Film Festival and will broadcast on PBS this spring. In terms of time and resources and scale, “They Killed Sister Dorothy” is by far our biggest film to date.
What was the inspiration for this film?
Three years ago, I read a New York Times article about Sister Dorothy’s death and thought what an amazing film it could be. A seemingly simple story of a nun’s murder was actually dramatically entangled with issues of deforestation, human rights, religion, and social justice. I met her brother, David and discovered he was going to Brazil to find out the truth about her death. I realized I had to document his journey, and that this would be a practical and dramatic way to tell Dorothy’s story and approach the larger issues of the story. My producing partner Henry Ansbacher and I convinced Oscar-winning producer Nigel Nobel to join the team. Together with a small Brazilian crew, we were able to get access to all sides of the account behind Sister Dorothy’s death.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film. What were some of your influences?
From the outset, I was struck not only by the timely and poignant topics within Dorothy’s story, but by the cinematic and dramatic elements of the story as it unfolded to us. I wanted to use all of these elements to convey the film’s narrative rather than the typical informational approach to documentary story-telling.
Filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and Kevin MacDonald have had enormous influence over how I approach documentary filmmaking. Their ability to provide a more visceral experience for the viewer inspires me. I drew on these influences significantly in filming scenes for “They Killed Sister Dorothy.” In particular, I employed this technique in trying to convey the power and theatrics that occurred in the Brazilian courtroom.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the film?
The Amazonian rainforest presented one of the biggest logistical challenges. It’s surprisingly difficult to get to the dense, pristine rainforest Sister Dorothy was working to protect. Where there are roads, it’s deforested. It was literally days of journey to get to Dorothy’s project from the urban capital where her murderers were being tried.
Obtaining and keeping everyone’s trust presented another challenge. The people on both sides of the issues were diametrically opposed, and we were filming people on each side closely. We overcame this issue by being transparent about our dedication to film the differing viewpoints equally.
Initially distributors expressed interest in our story and the amazing access we had acquired to both sides of the story. Ultimately, we ended up shooting “They Killed Sister Dorothy” independently out of necessity and timeliness. While a difficult task, this independence allowed us to focus on and film the most compelling and necessary aspects of the story that we might otherwise have lost.
What are your goals for the SXSW Film Festival?
A: We are thrilled to premiere “They Killed Sister Dorothy” at the South by Southwest Film Festival, a festival that has earned its accolades and grown quickly largely due to Matt Dentler‘s film selections. For this reason, it’s incredibly flattering that Matt has not only offered to showcase our film, but is genuinely excited and passionate about it. Naturally, we want the widest possible distribution for “They Killed Sister Dorothy,” and we believe having our world premiere at SXSW will help facilitate that goal. Through outreach, we’ve found the audiences in Austin to be enthusiastic, passionate filmgoers from all walks of life. We’ve already got interest in the film from a wide spectrum of potential viewers -environmental activists to religious clergy, college students to retirees – really a microcosm of the audience we think the film will attract nationally.