Speak, Memory: Making 'The Keepers'

"The Keepers" 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.
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"Following in the footsteps of Making a Murderer, HBO's The Jinx and the granddaddy of such true-crime investigations, Errol Morris' 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line, Ryan White's multipart documentary is, in one sense, an act of cinematic sleuthing, aimed at solving a cold case through rigorous reexamination of evidence and suspects," explains Nick Schager about the Netflix series The Keepers.

"Yet what differentiates it from its ancestors is that the secrets it uncovers have to do with far more than a simple homicide. That's because what White exposes, with heartrending clarity and empathy, is an honest-to-goodness conspiracy involving sexual abuse and the Catholic Church. It's Spotlight redux, albeit with far fewer heroes, far more horror, and far too many unanswered questions." Read more from Shager here.  

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The Keepers 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."

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In contrast to these dark crimes are the inspiring, emotional stories from survivors of child sexual abuse and conversations with two retired women who have spent years working tirelessly on the case. "A theme of all of this is just voice: being able to find your own, being able to use it and having people listen to it," says executive producer Jessica Hargrave.

"We never set out in making this to solve a murder," White says. "But what has happened through making it is it has drawn people out in a way that wouldn't have happened if there wasn't going to be such a scrutiny or risk of exposure."

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."


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