If this series were a novel, I’d call it a page-turner. That’s how well done it is; how engrossing it is; and how much I didn’t want to stop watching it! In fact, I “gulped” down the seven episodes of this documentary series in one day.
The story revolves around the murder of a beloved nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, who went missing 47 years ago; and whose case is still unsolved. More than a simple homicide, the plot has grown to include abuse by clergy, repressed memories, and a possible cover-up by the church and the police. While the tragedy never made headlines outside of Baltimore, the public in this close-knit town, the nun’s students, friends, family, and journalists continue to ask questions. And many of those involved continue to suffer.
For director Ryan White (The Case Against 8, Good Ol’ Freda, Serena) the story is also a personal one. His mother was raised in Baltimore; and his aunt was a former student of Sister Cathy’s at Archbishop Keough High School. “My family has close ties to not only Catholic Baltimore but the epicenter of this world.”
Abby Schaub and Gemma Hoskins
Part of that world includes Gemma Hoskins and Abby Schaub, two of the Sister’s former students, who have made it their mission to find out “who hurt Sister Cathy.” They are the lynchpins of this terrifying drama. Gemma has been described as a “bulldog.” Abby is the quiet one who does all the research. Together, they are an unstoppable force on an unrelenting search for the truth. As Gemma says, “We are not two ladies playing Clue.”
But they are responsible for helping put together the disparate parts of a puzzling mystery. In fact, Hoskins and Schaub played a large part in creating an online community for the victims of abuse and helping others come forward to share their experiences.
In this complex and ever-expanding tale, Director White captures the characters and the drama, jogging back and forth between the present and the past, intercutting interviews, photos, and archival footage. He also creates staged re-enactments that bring his subjects’ memories back to life. Shot on 16mm black-and-white film, the moments are both poignant and illuminating, often making use of just a slow pan or “push in” to enhance the drama. Other times, the scenes are full on, like when Priest Koob does his Mass of Consecration and saves a piece of communion bread for Cathy, hoping against hope she will show up. Blake Neely’s haunting music adds just the right amount of emotion to each scene, as does John Benam’s beautiful but unobtrusive camera work.
Perhaps the biggest challenge White and Executive Producer Jessica Hargrave faced was gaining the trust of their subjects, many of them abuse victims. Hargrave says, “We spent a lot of time with people without a camera, just getting to know them, showing them that we’re in it, we mean it, we want to be here, we want to support you, we want to do right by you.”
And this series does. But, as Ryan White says, “My hope is it’s not too late. The optimist in me says it isn’t, and there’s still a way to solve this murder.”
Smart and engaging, The Keepers takes us, the viewers, along for the ride and beckons us to be a part of it. You’ll be hooked from the get-go.
Photos courtesy of Netflix