Recent years have seen the overwhelming success of true crime documentary series, from HBO’s The Jinx to Netflix’s own Shadow Of Truth. The viewing public want to get their teeth into a real story and rally behind a cause that they have witnessed on screen. Arguably, no other genre makes as much impact as the documentary on real world events: just look at the daily news stories that continue to report on the cases of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey and the developments that have followed Netflix’s hugely popular documentary series Making A Murderer. Horrendous miscarriages of justice are being played out before our Netflix-bingeing eyes and viewers are trying to help through online forums, Q&As with the documentary makers, and even bringing new information to the authorities. It’s filmmaking, or indeed series making, at its finest.
Enter The Keepers, Netflix’s latest compelling docu-series directed by Ryan White. Where the justice system has failed its subjects, White has stepped into the breach and the internet has exploded with theories, petitions and news of the positive steps that the series has instigated. I told you documentaries make a difference, and once you have seen this fantastic series I encourage you to read the progress made since its release.
White even appears to be emulating the Big Daddy of documentaries with The Keepers. Errol Morris’ 1988 film The Thin Blue Line managed to elicit a confession and bring about the release of an innocent man, and indeed the capture of the guilty one, in a tape-recorded interview in its final scene. It played out in a simple shot of the tape recorder and the interviewee’s words displayed across the screen. In one scene in The Keepers we see a strikingly similar visual; as though White is calling on the documentary gods to bless his work with the same good fortune to overthrow a court verdict. I hope it can.
The Keepers follows the case of nun Sister Cathy Cesnik, a teacher at Baltimore’s Keough High School for Girls, who disappeared one night in November 1969 after she had been shopping for an engagement present for her sister. There is a lot about the case that doesn’t add up. Cathy’s car is found jutting out of a road near her home the same night of her disappearance with evidence of it having been driven through a wooded area, but there is no trace of Cathy. It seems like the car had been driven by someone else, someone who returned the car and fled… and the engagement present has never been found.
Cathy’s body was discovered days later in a local wood and the biggest mystery of all is, simply, why? She was loved by her family, by her students who felt they could confide in her and by her employers who viewed her as a talented teacher. It is unfathomable that someone could have wanted her dead. That is until some utterly shocking admissions of sexual abuse at Keough High School come to the surface.
The documentary series takes a new turn and what lurks around the corner is horrifying. Over the decades that have followed, hundreds of women have come forward with accounts of sexual abuse at the hands of Father Joseph Maskell, the school’s chaplain and guidance counsellor. Where there used to be silence and fear, women who have repressed their childhood trauma have come forward in the name of justice, many for the first time for this documentary. It is a moving, disturbing and utterly devastating experience that casts new light on Cathy’s case. Former student Jean Hargadon Wehner, known for a long time as Jane Doe in legal proceedings against Father Maskell, reveals that she had a conversation with Sister Cathy whilst she was at school. The nun had noticed that Jean had not been herself and suggested that she ask questions and Jean could simply nod or shake her head in response. Jean agreed and what resulted was an admission of her experiences in Father Maskell’s office to a member of staff. The documentary, from this point forward, considers Cathy’s murder a means of silencing her.
The Keepers is a call for justice for Cathy, for fellow nun Joyce Malecki who was murdered around the same time, and for the many women still carrying the emotional scars of their time at Keough High School under Father Maskell’s ‘care’. The entire campaign is orchestrated with tremendous love and attention to detail by two former pupils of Cathy’s, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Fitzgerald Schaub, who have made it their life’s mission to get to the bottom of the case. Through their relentless work, they have managed to uncover some other players in this dizzying maze of a case that become the focus of the series in its later stages. It soon becomes clear that the cover-ups and corruption run right to the heart of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and when the stories of these women’s accounts are rebuffed by the Church – women who have absolutely nothing to gain from lying – it is safe to say that your blood will boil.
The documentary is a moving celebration of the power of speaking out, and director Ryan White offers a safe space for the women to not only share their experiences but to meet each other, to rally around one another and to collectively grieve. One such moment will undoubtedly bring a tear to your eye, as the former Jane Doe and Teresa Lancaster, or Jane Roe, meet for the first time after years of enduring the turmoil of their legal case alone.
The cinematography is fittingly haunting, with grainy black-and-white re-enactments presenting the stories of those involved, and an eerie violin score by Blake Neely that at highlights both the evil and sorrow that saturate the accounts the documentary presents. There is one image that you will find difficult to get out of your head: the uncanny shot of a mannequin dressed in a nun’s habit stood in the centre of a dusty attic. Your skin will crawl, you will feel deeply uneasy… and that is the point.
The Keepers is compulsive viewing that will have you theorising for days and likely following the ongoing case through social media once the final credits have rolled. It is no secret that the case of Sister Cathy Cesnik’s murder remains unsolved, but the documentary offers evidence and motive aplenty whilst revealing some truly upsetting actions on the part of the Catholic Church to cover up and protect those guilty of child abuse. The case ends with several loose ends, one of which the viewing public have taken up by petitioning the evasive Baltimore Archdiocese to release their secret files on Joseph Maskell. There are lots of avenues for the amateur sleuths to explore and with the eyes of the world now on the case, we can be tentatively optimistic for positive change.
The Keepers has one of the most powerful endings of a documentary series, a passionate closing statement full of bravery and hope from one of the many victims who has been to hell and back. This documentary is their victory. Let’s hope for many more.