I used to look down on true crime stories as they seemed sensationalistic and lacking of any real respect for the victims and their families. They seemed like nothing more than tasteless entertainment. That changed for me with the Netflix produced Making a Murderer which was created by filmmakers who seemed genuinely concerned with injustice in the American legal system. The public responded by binge watching the series and since its release it has arguably had a real impact on the much maligned system. After the success of Making a Murderer it was hard to imagine that Netflix would wait very long before delving back into the realm of true crime. I can say quite honestly that The Keepers has all the well-meaning and quality of Making a Murderer (in fact, maybe a little bit more of both).
We’re in a really interesting time for documentary filmmakers. For a genre that has prided itself on making unbiased/non-intrusive/non-manipulative storytelling, we are certainly seeing a lot of filmic devices being used by documentarians these days. The Keepers uses music, camera work, and the opinion of those behind the camera to great emotional effect for the viewer. These techniques used to be viewed as cheating in the documentary world, but I think viewers are better amateur psychologists these days, and are better able to understand our own biases and influences. With our phones we are also all amateur moviemakers and have used some of these techniques ourselves. And with so much of our entertainment being one blurry mess of fiction and reality, I think it’s only fair that documentarians be allowed to reach out of their usual bag of tools and embrace techniques normally reserved by Hollywood for theatrical fare.
The Keepers also has a cast of incredible characters, some will feel very real to the viewer, while others (Bud Roemer comes to mind) will feel like they were yanked out of of a Hollywood classic. The story is deftly presented by the filmmakers and unfolds more interestingly than most contemporary fictional works.
Finally, I feel like I learned more about life, death, and everything in between from The Keepers than I have from recent fictional dramas. When dealing with real people, and real injustice, it’s hard not to moved, to learn, to change – and that’s what filmmaking is supposed to do for us. Sure, entertainment is great, but I want to come out of a viewing experience a different person, not completely changed, just privy to a different perspective on life than my own. Judging by the initial reception of The Keepers it seems like others would agree with me. Maybe that’s why Netflix is keeping their viewing numbers so close to their chest. Maybe we’re looking for a different type of entertainment and they’ve plugged into it while the competition stays with the tried and true formula.
It feels like the search for justice has gone mainstream. What a welcome development.