Daniel Junge’s documentary “They Killed Sister Dorothy”—which received the Grand Jury and Audience awards for Best Documentary Feature at the 2008 SXSW Film Festival—examines the circumstances surrounding the murder of Dorothy Stange, a 73-year-old nun from Ohio living in Brazil, who was shot six times at point-blank range and left to die on a road in the Amazon jungle. When her brother travels to Brazil in search of answers, his investigation yields surprising results that have larger environmental implications for the future of the Brazilian rainforest.
The film airs tonight, Wednesday, March 25, on HBO2.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
Filmmaking was the logical combination of what few skills I have (writing, photography, obsessive compulsion), and something I genuinely loved. Like many, I was initially drawn to narrative but always had a love of documentaries and after years of working for other people found a way to make my first film, which thankfully was successful. After nearly a decade of making my own films, it’s still my love…and I’m still not very good at anything else!
What inspired the idea for “They Killed Sister Dorothy?”
I read about it in the New York Times and thought what a poignant documentary and moreover what a great movie it would make — the murder of a nun in the Amazon. In further researching the story with the Dayton Daily News (Dorothy’s hometown newspaper) I learned that her brother, David, lived in my home state of Colorado and gave him a call. He said, “I’m going to Brazil in three days, can you get a visa that quickly?” So within days of Sister Dorothy’s murder I was on a plane with her brother bound for Brazil; of course it ultimately became much more than just David’s story but that’s where it began.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
Although I’m deeply indebted to verite filmmakers like Albert Maysles and consider myself in that tradition, I’m very enamored by folks like Werner Herzog, Kevin MacDonald (and most recently James Marsh) who use more cinematic approaches to their subjects. I think “Sister Dorothy” represents my best effort in that direction thus far, and I’m pleased with the cinematic aspects of the film — the dramatic storytelling, integration of past and present tenses, moments of impressionism, the score (thanks to composer Pedro Bromfman), and the larger visual tableau.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
I’ve been part of Just Media — a non-profit social justice production company — and we’ve been fortunate to be able to find money to start films which historically have gone on to get the bulk of their financing from, among others, ITVS, the BBC, and the Sundance Fund. But “Sister Dorothy,” to my great surprise, was the first project for which we were unable to get external funding. So we managed to scrimp and make the film ourselves out of pocket. After our successful SXSW premiere, HBO (who had tracked the project with strong interest from early in production) acquired the film for distribution, and we’re thrilled it’s premiering with them this week!
What is your next project?
I’m currently finishing a new film for HBO on an assisted suicide ballot initiative in the state of Washington and researching new ideas for films.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I’d like to learn how to make money doing it! Seriously, I would like to explore more commercial avenues to help sustain my social justice documentary habit.
I would also like to make a narrative feature, but I’ve worked enough in the industry to know what kind of effort that takes…not more effort than a documentary — just different, and with more moving parts. Also, I see so many narrative features and think, “so what?” So hopefully I can find a narrative project which uses the skill set I’ve developed in documentaries and has the gravitas of the social justice films I’ve made.
What other stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
The list is endless. That’s the problem!
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
The reason I was able to make my first feature, “Chiefs,” was the advent of new technology that allowed a new generation of novice filmmakers to make films without waiting for the powers-that-be to say yes. While that’s certainly been a boon to my career, it also means the competition — particularly in documentary — is much more intense, and there is a greater need to find even more amazing stories and start filming out of pocket. I had this notion that when I became an “established” filmmaker, that I could pitch something on paper and get funded but I think either I was very naive or those days are gone…or maybe I’m just not “established” yet.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Don’t wait for someone to say yes. Find a way to start shooting.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
While film accolades certainly feel good, perhaps the most gratifying results have been seeing our films help implement change. “Iron Ladies of Liberia” is being used in the US Congress to help pass an aid bill for Liberia. “They Killed Sister Dorothy” was cited as part of an arrest of a suspect in Dorothy’s case and has been shown to Brazil’s congress. These are the kind of things which feel even better than awards.