Another haunting story of institutional injustice, director Ryan White’s seven-part series came to him through family connections, investigating the 1969 murder of a Baltimore nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik—a teacher at Archbishop Keough High School who stood up against alleged sexual abuse by priests in her local community and paid the ultimate price.
The primary subjects of the series are a group of women who, like White’s aunt, attended Keough. Hoping for justice while knowing that it may never come, these women knew Cesnik well and loved her dearly, haunted for the rest of their lives by a crime that was buried and remains unresolved.
Below, the Emmy nominee discusses the courage of this community of women who—through his lens—unburied this tragedy and examined their own grief.
The Keepers centers on a crime buried in history—the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik in 1969. What was your way into this story?
I actually have a personal connection to the story, in that my aunt went to the high school where it all happened—Archbishop Keough High School. I come from a big Catholic family in Baltimore. My mom was from a big Catholic family, and her sister went to Archbishop Keough and was Sister Cathy’s student.
She was intimately connected to the whole thing. Her favorite teacher went missing and was found dead, and it had haunted her, her entire life. I never heard the story before, and then a few years ago, my aunt and my mom found out who Jane Doe was. They knew that it was a friend of theirs—they had grown up with Jean [Hargadon Wehner]. My aunt was in her class at Archbishop Keough; my mom had dated her brother back in the day.
The two families had grown up side by side. When they found out that Jane Doe was their friend, they connected me with Jean, and that was about three years ago. I flew over to Baltimore and met her for five hours at her dining room table and left that night very compelled, knowing I wanted to be a part of telling her story if she wanted to put it out there.
Bearing in mind this unusual origin story, would you say there’s a through line in the projects you take on a documentary filmmaker?
If there’s any common denominator in my documentaries so far, it’s that they’re all female-centric—women are at the center of each story. I don’t know why that is. I used to laugh about, “One day, I’ll make a movie about a man.”
I don’t know if it’s because I was raised by women—with a single mom and an older sister—but that’s been the through line of my films so far, and actually, my next documentary is about a woman, too.
With The Keepers specifically, it was so personal. It was so close to what I grew up with. Jean and Teresa [Lancaster, a.k.a. Jane Roe] and Donna [Von Den Bosch], all of these survivors are just like my mom and my aunt. When I was talking to Jean that first time, I knew that that could be my mom. That could have happened to my mom just as easily. I think that’s really what drew me in, how relatable she was to me, to my personal life.
Given your personal way into the project, was it easier than it might normally be to gain the trust of your documentary subjects?
Trust is always the biggest hurdle—it’s never easy. Let’s use Jean as an example: I didn’t know her. My aunt and my mom introduced me to her over email, and that’s what got me in the door, for sure. I think a lot of other people wouldn’t have gotten through the door without that personal connection, but I spent many months having to prove myself to her.
She was testing me for many months without a camera ever there, where I would fly back and forth from LA to Baltimore and meet her. She is obviously a very perceptive woman and was spending a lot of time testing me, seeing how I would react to certain things and asking me a lot of questions.
Her trust was won over many months before we ever introduced a camera. The entire three-year process of making The Keepers was meeting new people who you realized played a key part in the story, and having to persuade them to be a part of it.
Gemma [Hoskins] wasn’t difficult because Gemma loved the attention that was going to come to the case if there was a documentary that was going to be made, but a lot of other people, like Sister Cathy’s family, they would pop up into our lives and you’d have a very short amount of time to explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Thankfully, for the most part, everybody participated.
The story of Sister Cathy’s death is so personal to those who knew her—it has haunted many of them for their entire lives. What has it been like to be around that kind of emotion?
It was very emotional. I was on a constant learning curve because I had never made a documentary, obviously, about child sex abuse. I’d never even worked with trauma victims before. My producer Jess [Hargrave] and I were on a steep learning curve, spending all this time with all of these survivors. We really used them as our guide.
They taught us how to navigate those waters and what to say, what not to say; how you handle someone when they break down. All of these situations that happened repeatedly throughout filming The Keepers, we learned how to handle from the survivors themselves. There were many times where I said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing, but it was about being open to learning from those mistakes and not making them again.
In addition to these survivors, you interviewed at least one or two individuals who may have been connected with the crime. How did you approach those interviews, when you were stepping into the unknown?
It’s a tricky thing. As documentary filmmakers, I think we surround ourselves with people who are constantly questioning the ethics of filmmaking. I had a producing team and an editing team who were very self-reflective—we were constantly asking ourselves why we were including certain people or certain things.
Not everyone that we interviewed or was willing to speak on camera made the final cut, either. There were certain instances where we felt like we didn’t have enough to include someone, or enough to include the questioning of someone. The ones that make it into the series were people who acknowledge the things that were said about them.
One example of that is Edgar Davidson. I was so fascinated with his family that had this whole story, going back so many decades—we didn’t know if it was true or urban legend—about how he had come home covered in blood, and the necklace at Christmas, the new tires on the car. It wasn’t until we met Edgar and he corroborated all those things and said, “Yes, my ex-wife is telling the truth about all of this,” that we said, “Okay, we’re going to include this.” Because at the very least, he’s saying that he wants his family to believe this.
People have compared The Keepers to another true-crime Netflix series, Making a Murderer, the filmmakers of which garnered some controversy for their methods.
Totally. That’s not something you’re thinking of while you’re making it. What’s interesting is we were making The Keepers before Serial came out, before Making a Murderer came out. There wasn’t really a predecessor that had been told episodically, and that had gained the country and the world’s popularity in the way those did.
We were kind of watching from the sideline as those series and some others paved the way for us to be able to tell The Keepers the way that we did. Making The Keepers was such an intimate process. Oftentimes, it’s just me with a camera with Jean, so it doesn’t feel like something that’s going to take over the world, or that everybody is going to see. As those series gained that popularity, we started understanding that we might be able to tell it episodically, and that we might have a documentary that’s popular, which, as we all know, is so rare. That does up the stakes of ethics.
I have to say, I had the benefit of watching some of the backlash that The Jinx got, and some of the backlash that Making a Murderer got. I was able to consider those backlashes while I was making The Keepers, weighing very heavily if you’re showing all the information on both sides, or weighing very heavily why you’re going to include a certain character. Or, if somebody’s going to turn you down for interviews, finding a way to officially represent that, so that viewers know that actually happened.
In many ways, I had that benefit while making it. I think as documentary filmmakers, we’re constantly navigating ethical waters. In the end, it’s the product of what team you bring to it. I really tried hard with The Keepers to surround myself with people—and mostly women—on my team who were asking those hard questions.
If you watch The Keepers, I think the real reaction to it has been that as far as true-crime stories go, it really concentrates on women, and it really concentrates on the survivor—the actual victimhood, versus the perpetrators. I hope that’s a little bit different for audiences. I know it’s harder to watch, but I’m very pleased that people have stuck it out for the entire series.
What was your approach to covering a story that goes back many decades?
It’s a beast. Not only was it an old story, but I think it had also been deliberately buried by so may people and institutions that it was hard to unbury a lot of the parts of the story that you needed. By far, my biggest challenge in making The Keepers was the fact that everything happened so long ago that a lot of people who could speak to it were dead, and a lot of people who are alive want it to stay buried. It was a constant tension, feeling the visceral sense that people don’t want this story told. The survivors do.
Perhaps this is self-explanatory, but why go to Netflix with this project?
There was a lot of interest in The Keepers, so we had choices. which is rare as a documentary filmmaker. I had this conversation over and over with the survivors in The Keepers—they preferred that the story all be released at once. Seven hours available at 12:01 AM worldwide in every country, versus going a more traditional TV model. They wanted to just rip the band-aid off.
The other reason is the global nature of Netflix, which I don’t think I really understood until The Keepers came out. It felt like it had such a larger impact than if we had divided it up territory by territory.
The mystery at the heart of this series remains unresolved. Do you expect there to be more to this story, and if so, do you intend to pursue it?
I’m not documenting anything right now, and I’m not looking to make a Season 2. I’m really happy with The Keepers as a living, breathing documentary on its own. I’m happy with where it ended, and I know that doesn’t have the final answer to who killed Sister Cathy, but that’s okay. That’s not what I ever set out to do.
We’re seeing so much progress now that the series has come out—people are coming out of the woodwork and there is a lot of information coming to us. We’re trying to keep up with it and then feed it to the correct [authority] as necessary, whether that’s the police or Gemma and Abbie [Fitzgerald Schaub]. I’m not going to say there will never be any follow up, but there’s no plans for Season 2 right now.
Whether there’s a follow-up to The Keepers or not, there will be more answers coming out over the coming years. There’s an artful side to documentaries, and to just dive in to cover a story in a couple of months isn’t my style. I want to dive in for years more.
What do you hope people will take away from the series, in a world where the Catholic Church seems to be a continual problem?
Well, the Catholic Church is the Catholic Church. I haven’t seen a lot of change. In fact, the way they responded to The Keepers was pretty appalling. Setting them aside, I feel like the power of what these women have done in The Keepers is that which the Catholic Church continues to do to harm people can be stopped by a community.
That’s the incredible courage of people like Gemma and Abbie and Jean and Teresa and Donna and Lil [Hughes]—they’d been buried, they were all suffering in silence separately, and they were a community that came together.