Sister Helen Prejean Shows that Her Work Isn’t Done in 'Rebel Nun'

| 06/11/2024

By: Monica Bogan

The documentary, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, takes an inside look at the “Dead Man Walking” sister as she fights on behalf of death row inmates

Sister Helen Prejean is shown in a still from "Rebel Nun," a new documentary about the death penalty opponent's life and work.
Sister Helen Prejean is shown in a still from "Rebel Nun," a new documentary about the death penalty opponent's life and work. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group.

“If you see Helen live, in action, it’s amazing,” said Dominic Sivyer, director of the feature documentary “Rebel Nun,” which premiered on Thursday, June 6, at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. 

“She’s working with the press, she’s working on an emotional level…she’s working with the legal team, and from a political point of view; she’s working with legislators. So that’s five different roles in one person. And I think if someone were able to see that process, they’d understand her a lot more,” Sivyer said in a Zoom interview with The Good Newsroom

The documentary looks at the life and work of Sister Helen, whose efforts on behalf of death row inmates were dramatized in the Academy Award-winning 1995 film “Dead Man Walking,” based on her book of the same title. She remains one of America’s leading activists for the abolition of the death penalty. 

“Rebel Nun” reflects on Prejean’s decades of activism beginning in the 1980s and shows her current work on the case of Richard Glossip, a death row inmate convicted in 1997. Glossip was convicted in 1997 for ordering the murder of Barry Van Treese, but has maintained his innocence and refused to accept a plea bargain. Glossip has sat on death row for over 26 years and has endured nine execution dates. Audiences get an up-close look at Prejean’s work as she partners with legislators, advocates, and even Kim Kardashian in the fight for Glossip’s clemency.

The documentary also gives an unflinching look at the difficult elements of Sister Helen’s work, such as dealing with the complicated and frustrating legal system and her complex relationships with the victims’ families, who also have a voice in the movie. “[It] was important for us to…hear their point of view, their anger, their way of thinking and their negative thoughts about me. [Dominic] carefully brought out the negative sides of me too so the audience could make up their own minds,” said Prejean.

One of the most impactful parts of Sister Helen’s work has resulted from Sister Helen’s conversations with Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis regarding capital punishment. Pope Francis changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 2018 to explicitly denounce the death penalty. “The Church’s teaching on moral issues evolves and changes,” said Sister Helen. “It’s because of the dialogue that goes on.”

Despite decades of activism, numerous legislative wins, and being a key voice in shifting the cultural conversation around the death penalty, Sister Helen has never been able to save anyone from death row. She has provided spiritual guidance to numerous death row inmates and has held the hand of a prisoner as he was executed. When asked how she can continue this exhaustive work after so many years, Sister Helen shared that this work “either paralyzes you or it galvanizes you.” She has a “new call, a fresh fire” to ensure the deaths of these prisoners were not in vain. 

That fire is on full display in “Rebel Nun,” and continues to drive Sister Helen forward in her work. She hopes that by bringing people close to this issue through this documentary, she can continue to make a difference. “The whole job is to bring people close to this [issue],” she said. “People want to choose life.”

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