‘Rebel Nun’ Documentary Aims To Reinvigorate Push To Abolish Death Penalty

Many Americans first learned about Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun and prominent death penalty abolitionist, through the 1993 book, “Dead Man Walking,” and its acclaimed movie adaptation two years later.

More than 30 years after Prejean’s book was published, a new documentary is offering a more comprehensive look at her life and work through a contemporary lens.

Directed by Dominic Sivyer, “Rebel Nun” premiered Thursday at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Actor Susan Sarandon, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Prejean in “Dead Man Walking,” was expected to attend the debut screening. Two additional screenings are set for Friday and Sunday.

Together with Sivyer, Prejean pored through 60 years worth of personal archives as she recalls key moments in her decision to join a Catholic religious order in the mid-1950s and, later, her rise to national prominence as an unflinching opponent of the death penalty in the ’80s.

The documentary
The documentary "Rebel Nun," which profiles death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean, premiered Thursday at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival. Universal Pictures Content Group

Some of Prejean’s journey was previously documented in “Dead Man Walking.” The most poignant scenes in “Rebel Nun” are those that zoom in Prejean’s more recent work as a spiritual adviser to Richard Glossip, a death row inmate in Oklahoma who has maintained his innocence throughout several attempts by the state to execute him.

As part of Sivyer’s aim to produce a film that “didn’t celebrate Sister Helen wholeheartedly,” there are also interviews with Prejean’s opponents, including the sister of a woman who was sexually assaulted and murdered by Robert Lee Willie, a Louisiana serial killer. Willie, who partly inspired Sean Penn’s character in the film adaptation of “Dead Man Walking,” was executed in 1984.

“I think she’s a true example of how you’ve got to keep fighting for what you believe in, no matter where you are in life,” Sivyer told HuffPost in an interview. “To me, that’s hugely inspirational.”

He went on to note: “We were both keen on showing both sides of the issues, and looking at areas of her life where she felt like she could have done something differently. But she never dictated how I should tell her story or what needed to be included. It’s very rare to be in a position where somebody gives you that freedom.”

"I try to make films about important social issues, but very much from a human perspective," filmmaker Dominic Sivyer, on left, said. <span class="copyright">Richard Sweeney</span>
"I try to make films about important social issues, but very much from a human perspective," filmmaker Dominic Sivyer, on left, said. Richard Sweeney

Though Prejean, 85, was initially reluctant to “focusing so much on me and my life,” she came around to the idea once Sivyer convinced her that “Rebel Nun” could potentially reinvigorate the push to abolish the death penalty.

“The thing about the death penalty is that it’s not like somebody dying in a hospital,” she told HuffPost. “It’s the only time in our criminal justice system where the state actually imitates the crime to impose a punishment. We don’t burn people’s houses when they’re arrested for arson, but we’re going to kill you because you’ve killed. We’re imitating the worst possible human behavior to determine a punishment.”

As Sivyer awaits word on further distribution plans for “Rebel Nun,” he’s already begun work on a new project, possibly for Netflix.

“I never want to lecture an audience,” he said. “I try to make films about important social issues, but very much from a human perspective. I want an audience to come to a conclusion about an issue through a person.”

Meanwhile, Prejean has been busy writing her next book, “Beneath Our Dignity,” about a Louisiana death row inmate, Manuel Ortiz, now in his 60s.

“To really be alive is to have an intellectual life, a purpose in your life, people you’re involved with and good, noble causes that you’re working for,” she said. “Otherwise, you’re going around half-dead before you die. I don’t want to die before I die.”