Among this year’s number of imaginative and engaging features to grace the 2019 Women Texas Film Festival line-up, Stella Mar Films’ Where There is Darkness stands out. Following the 2016 disappearance of Catholic priest and community figure Father Rene Robert, the award-winning true crime documentary dazzled the Texas Theatre audience through sublime landscape shots, archive footage, thoughtful re-enactments, and powerful storytelling. Even more exciting, the two sisters at the center of the feature, Bobbie Jean Murray and Crystal Murray, attended the screening and participated in a Q&A afterward.
When friends and family describe Father Rene’s kind albeit quirky personality, a few traits come to mind. His admiration of St. Francis. His steadfast humility. His his staple accessory, a New York Yankees hat. His uncanny affection for cheese (he would put it on salmon). A beloved spiritual leader and friend to all, Fr. Rene touched the lives of many in the close-knit community of St. Augustine, Florida. When he didn’t show up to a funeral he was supposed to attend on April 12, 2016, and wouldn’t answer his cell phone after, people began to worry. This is where the story begins.
As the film progresses, we learn that Fr. Rene’s generosity and trustworthy nature extended to people from all walks of life. He took an interest in helping ex-convicts as they transitioned from prison back into society. Sometimes his assistance came in the form of spiritual guidance. Most times, as financial aid.
One such man whom Fr. Rene built a relationship with was 28-year-old Steven Murray, the brother of Bobbie Jean and Crystal Murray. Many close friends and family members advised against this kind of support and worried he was putting his life in danger, though this did not stop the priest from continuing the work he felt called to do. Just days after Fr. Rene Robert’s disappearance, Steven Murray was seen driving his blue Toyota Corolla.
Police eventually captured Murray. After hours of evasive answers and feigned ignorance, the young man admitted to kidnapping Fr. Rene and, ultimately, killing him. Prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty and the case’s outcome appeared immutable. That is, until the secretary at the bishop’s office found an old document signed by Fr. Rene in 1995, over two decades before.
In the document, titled “Declaration of Life,” Fr. Rene essentially requests that should he be victim to a violent crime, the person found guilty should not be given the death penalty, writing, “no matter how heinous their crime or how much I have suffered.” Though not legally binding itself, the posthumous act of mercy began something of a campaign by the community to save Steven Murray’s life. Somehow, it worked. The judge sentenced Murray to life in prison.
While it may be tempting, and perhaps easier, to truncate the story down to its most sensational features or leave out certain perspectives, this film does not do so. Where There is Darkness feels balanced, and seemingly unravels a complex saga as efficiently and as truthfully as possible in this medium. As the Murray sisters take the stage, they explained how directors Sean Bloomfield and Cimela Kidonakis frequently consulted them and allowed for creative input during the process.
“With Sean and Cimela, we actually did have a lot of say-so. We were the first ones to see it. They were completely honest and very open with us. There were some things that we were not okay with, so they didn’t include them,” Bobbie Jean Murray says. “This film does not tell it all, but it tells enough for you to get the picture.”
Prior to working with Bloomfield and Kidonakis, the Murrays turned away countless media inquiries, not exactly trusting what some outlets would do with the story. Gene Tolbert, one of the detectives on Fr. Rene’s case, is close with the sisters and was more or less the person who convinced them to work with Stella Mar Films. After receiving their brother Steven Murray’s permission, filming began.
The feature gets its name from a line in the Prayer of Saint Francis: “Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.” Aptly titled, the film embodies this ideal of finding hope in tragedy, however impossible doing so may appear to be. The sisters’ willingness to contribute to a project so deeply personal, and the readiness of all others in the film to be interviewed on camera, speaks to some fiber of faith we may cling to; at once arresting and inspiring.