'The Keepers', which is a seven-part documentary series that will investigate the unsolved murder of a Baltimore nun, will premiere exclusively on Netflix on 19 May
The series opens with the story of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a beloved nun and Catholic high school teacher in Baltimore who went missing on Nov. 7, 1969. Nearly two months later, her body was found – and, to this day, her murder remains unsolved.
The case returned to the spotlight in the 1990s when one of Sister Cathy’s former students – a woman only known as “Jane Doe” – came forward to share her experience of horrendous sexual abuse by the high school’s chaplain. Incredibly, “Jane Doe” revealed she was also taken to Sister Cathy’s undiscovered body and told, “See what happens when you say bad things about people.” Despite this and testimony from other victims and witnesses of abuse, no one was held accountable, and the story was largely unreported outside of Baltimore.
Through conversations with dozens of friends, relatives, journalists, government officials and Baltimore citizens determined to uncover the truth, White pieces together a story that goes beyond the death of a beloved Catholic schoolteacher to encompass clergy abuse, repressed memories and government and religious institutions that he says “at best, dropped the ball over the last 45 years – and, at worst, covered it up.”
It is directed by Ryan White, who made 'The Case Against 8' and 'Good Ol’ Freda'. “I don’t think it’s just a story that never caught the attention of people,” White says. “I think it was a story that was buried, and so it had to be un-buried, in a way.”
White’s footage includes candid conversations with the woman formerly known as “Jane Doe” about what really happened behind closed doors at Archbishop Keough High School.
“From the moment I met her, I was devoted to bringing this story to light, because I believed it,” White says. “I believe she can have a true impact in the world, and I believe she’s been deprived of that because of how her story’s been buried by many people in many institutions.”
White also speaks with Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, two of Sister Cathy’s former students. Now retired and in their 60s, Hoskins and Schaub have spent years investigating what happened after their favorite English teacher disappeared 47 years ago.
“Gemma’s probably the biggest embodiment of that (person) who will stop at nothing,” White says. “She can strike up a conversation with anyone and can charm the hell out of anyone, but she can also use that to her advantage to expose the truth.”
Hoskins and Schaub also played a large part in creating an online community for the victims and helping others come forward and share their experiences.
“They intended to solve a murder, and what they did is they created a safe community for all of these women and men of a certain age to find people who believed them,” White says. “That’s been really powerful to witness as a filmmaker.”
White also speaks with local journalists, retired and current law enforcement members and those who were close to Sister Cathy. In addition to being a tragic crime story, The Keepers shines a light on the power of community.
“You get the sense of all of these people in Baltimore coming together in a grassroots way to say, ‘This isn’t OK. And it’s not too late to say this isn’t OK, and it’s not too late to create our own community to challenge the institutions we have here, or to challenge the church that has so much power here,’” White says. “And that’s where I think the people of Baltimore have real agency and a real vigor.”
After The Keepers debuts in millions of homes worldwide, White says he hopes those involved will finally feel heard – and viewers will feel encouraged to discuss an issue that stretches far beyond Baltimore.
“My hope in making this series is that we open up the conversation around what happened to these children,” White says. “The ones that survived are now adults, but it’s not too late to (talk) about what happened to them, why it happened, why it was never exposed and to make sure that it stops happening in the future.”
Adds Hargrave: “I hope that people watching it can grow in their understanding and can learn that it’s something not to look away from. It’s something we should listen to, it’s something we should talk about – and we should be looking for ways to be sure it doesn’t happen.”
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Though production on The Keepers began nearly three years ago, its origins stretch back even further to the family of director Ryan White .
“My family has close ties to not only Catholic Baltimore but the epicenter of this world,” notes the filmmaker, whose previous work includes acclaimed docs The Case Against 8 , Good Ol’ Freda and Serena .
Though White grew up in Atlanta, his mother was raised in Baltimore; in fact, his aunt was a former student of Sister Cathy’s at Archbishop Keough High School.
Over the years, White’s relatives had told him about the murder case and the story of “Jane Doe.” In 2014 when “Jane Doe” was revealed to be one of his aunt’s former classmates and a family friend, White thought she might be interested in participating in a documentary. He and Hargrave met with her in Baltimore and, as he says, “everything just snowballed from there.”
“This was before The Jinx and Making a Murderer , so there wasn’t really a predecessor for making a series. We were thinking maybe we’d make a feature-length documentary,” he says. After shooting roughly 750 hours of footage, he realized that wouldn’t be possible.
The Keepers reteams White with executive producer Jessica Hargrave , his longtime friend and creative partner.
“Jess and I are best friends since we are 9 years old, so we go way back,” White says, adding, “I don’t think there would be The Keepers without her or with any other producer.”
From the outset, White and Hargrave worked side by side in the field and throughout the nearly yearlong editing process. Along with performing exhaustive research on topics like clergy abuse, Baltimore’s history and the statute of limitations in childhood sexual abuse cases, she nurtured relationships with many of the people featured in The Keepers .
“I think it was very important to have a woman that was part of the team,” White says. “I think ( The Keepers ) is a woman’s story, when it comes down to it.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge White and Hargrave faced was gaining the trust of their subjects, many of them abuse victims.
“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,’” Hargrave says.
Adds White: “It was a very small crew. It was such a sensitive subject matter that I think we needed familiar faces everywhere.”
White’s crew consisted of just two other people: Hargrave and Baltimore-based cinematographer John Benam .
“John was a fantastic addition, not only because of his skill, but because of his heart,” Hargrave says. “He’s an amazing man, and it really takes a special person to be able to connect with all of these survivors and make them feel comfortable.”
And while White succeeded in getting dozens of people to speak on camera, he says not everyone was agreeable.
“I’m not talking about abuse victims ... I’m talking about the people that might have information, the people that were in positions of power or might have witnessed something,” he says. “I found it very difficult and frustrating at times to try to get people who could validate the victims or corroborate the victims to go on the record.”
The Keepers is certainly White’s most serious and personal film to date. It was also a learning experience, and he credits his subjects with helping him navigate such sensitive material.
“Sometimes Jess and I would say the wrong thing – it’s so easy to trigger a child sex abuse victim when you don’t even know that you’re using the wrong language, or that a picture could trigger someone,” he says. “Learning how to be very careful in how you treat these situations and to always follow the lead of the survivors themselves has been very illuminating for me.”
In addition to incorporating new footage, photos and archival materials, White shot several black-and-white “cinematic sequences” that bring some of his subjects’ memories to life. The moments are haunting and illuminating.
“(It was) a way to always root the audience that, ‘OK we’re going back into someone’s mind or someone’s memory,’” White says. “So much of the series is about what’s real and what’s not real that we wanted to recreate that world of 1969 and 1970 Baltimore.”
Baltimore is another essential character in The Keepers . Throughout the seven episodes, viewers learn about the city’s past and meet generations of its citizens.
“Everybody in my series are hard-working, regular people from Baltimore, for the most part (from) Catholic families,” White says. “It was a world I feel never had their story told. ... Yeah, there are criminals – Baltimore has a high crime rate – but as I hope people get a sense from the series, the people of Baltimore are good people who want the truth exposed.”
The Keepers took nearly a year to edit, with three full-time editors and three assistant editors working on the project. As for its distribution, White and Hargrave say they’re eager for Netflix to release all seven episodes simultaneously on a global scale.
“A big part of our decision process, honestly, was how survivors would cope with the distribution,” White says. “We thought it would be too emotionally taxing for our subjects to have to watch something once a week over the course of two months and not know what was going on.”
He says Netflix’s international, “all-at-once model” alleviates that concern.
“This story has been buried for so long and the people have suffered under that burial,” he says. “(This way), there will be one day worldwide where the truth is unburied.”
“Netflix provides the platform and a number of eyeballs that we wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else,” adds Hargrave. “Despite this being a story in a town in the United States, it represents something much bigger than that, and a lot of people will be able to see it, relate to it and apply it to their own lives, experiences and communities.”
“Visibility, more so than ever to me on my other films, is a huge part of this,” White says. “I feel like the reach Netflix has is also going to hopefully create that dialogue that, in a dream world, would stop this from happening again.”
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