The Keepers Director On How He Made The Must-See Netflix True Crime Doc

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
Sister Catherine Cesnik
Take a moment to glance at your true crime-obsessed colleagues today: there’s a strong chance they’ll be looking a little square-eyed. This weekend saw the launch of Netflix’s latest murder-centric docu-series, The Keepers, and it’s just as compelling as anticipated. Delivered in seven one-hour episodes, it is a chilling investigation into the events surrounding the unsolved slaying of 26-year-old nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, in Baltimore in 1969.
Cesnik was an English teacher at Archbishop Keough High School, where she garnered a devoted following among her all-female pupils for her kindness, intelligence and passion for her subject. When on 7th November 1969, she disappeared, after making the brief trip from her apartment to the local mall to buy an engagement present for her sister, the girls were devastated, their shock compounded by the discovery of her frozen body in a field some weeks later.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
Joseph Maskell and Neil Magnus
Things took an even darker turn in the '90s, when an anonymous former Keough student, going by the pseudonym Jane Doe, came forward to reveal the horrendous sexual abuse she had suffered as a teen at the hands of the school chaplain and counsellor Father Joseph Maskell. Thereafter, dozens more of Maskell’s victims were emboldened to speak out, a number revealing that they had confided in Sister Cathy shortly before her death. And yet, in spite of this, owing to a startling and expansive cover-up by both the Catholic church and the Baltimore police, justice for Sister Cathy – and for those it seems increasingly certain she died trying to protect – has never been achieved. It is this that The Keepers sets out to rectify, while giving a voice to those who have been hitherto silenced.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
Sister Catherine Cesnik and Joseph Cesnik
We enter the story through the eyes of spirited Keough alumni Gemma Hoskins (dubbed “the bulldog”) and Abbie Schaub (“the intellectual”), a former teacher and nurse, who have spent the past 10 years of their retirement leading a grassroots investigation into the cold case. Through a website and Facebook group, the duo have succeeded in shedding important new light on the mystery – digging up fresh clues, attracting new witnesses, and homing in on potential perpetrators – as well as uniting the brave survivors ensnared within its web. The Keepers documents three pivotal years of their mission, beginning in 2014.
Director Ryan White is a largely silent presence in the series: “I’ve always loved listening,” he tells us over the phone from the US. “My favourite part of my job is being able to collaborate with those who have lived these stories and to help them relay their experiences to the world.” Indeed, The Keepers is propelled by the extraordinarily candid, often devastating, interviews that White elicits, a testament to both his tact as a listener and the immense strength of the interviewees (Jean Wehner aka Jane Doe being perhaps the most notable example). And it is this important “examination of victimhood”, as White terms it, that really sets The Keepers apart, underpinned by the twist and turn-filled mystery at its heart, which pulls you in and keeps you glued to your screen from start to finish. Here, we catch up with White to find out more about his surprising personal connection to the project, its challenging realisation and the remarkable women he met along the way.
How did you come to discover Sister Cathy’s story?
My aunt actually went to Archbishop Keough in the late '60s and Sister Cathy was her favourite teacher. She was also friends with, and in the same class as, “Jane Doe”. But although she knew Jean very well, she only found out that she was the person behind this mystery figure a few years ago. Quite soon after, she connected me with Jean, and Jean and I began a process, off-camera, of meeting with each other and deciding if she thought that this would be the next best step for her – to be putting her face on Jane Doe in such a public way. Thankfully she decided it was, and we began production in October of 2014.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins
How did you come to meet Gemma and Abbie?
The Facebook group already existed by the time I first went out to Baltimore. My aunt told us about it, and then I found Gemma and she took a tour of Baltimore, showing us all of the major places of interest. I fell in love with Gemma right away and knew that she would be a wonderful character – a very fresh, unique way of taking an audience into one of these types of mysteries.
What’s it like working on such an intense, long-term project like this? Do you become completely engulfed by it?
Oh god, that would be an understatement [laughs]. We spent half of every month in Baltimore with these people for the past three years. So yes, I’ve been engulfed in it and it’s obviously a very dark, horrific story, which it has been impossible not to feel the effects of, but it’s also about some great, courageous people whose truth, I felt very strongly, needed to be brought to life. So it was also a very redeeming three years in terms of getting to know them.
Is it tough interviewing such amazingly brave people about such painful subjects? The interviews with Jean, for example, are so heartbreaking…
I can only speak to the bravery that it must have taken for these women to bear their souls on camera. I’ve made a lot of documentaries about exciting moments in people’s lifetimes, where I’ve asked them about some of their most fun and vivid memories. But here I was asking them to share the very worst parts of their lives, not only with me at a dining room table, but also with the Netflix audience – a lot of people. These women are so incredible for taking that leap of faith, and exposing their pain and their heart, in the hope that something like this never happens again – because I know that’s their shared goal.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
Jean Wehner
Did you ever find yourself fearing for your safety during the making of the series?
We knew we were rooting around and trying to dig up something that had been deliberately buried, and we felt that tension. I have never worked on something that was so investigative or so dark. I won’t lie and say that there weren’t times that we were a little fearful, as filmmakers, for our own safety or felt like we might be taking something a bit too far but we knew that we didn’t have to live this in the way that the victims did, so we felt that the least we could do was put our nose to the grindstone, to put ourselves in some uncomfortable situations, to bring the truth to light.
What do you make of the burgeoning ‘true crime’ phenomenon? And where do you see your series within that?
I think if you look at the common denominators in all of these stories that have gained some level of popularity in recent years, there is a murder at the centre, of course, but there are also incidences of extreme injustice. I think audiences get really invested in stories where accountability, for whatever reason, hasn’t been taken – it angers them, and it should. While I was making The Keepers, I found myself angry all the time, as did my crew: angry at the injustice, at the lack of accountability, at the pain inflicted, at the lack of protection for these children by our state. So I hope we can use the long format to convey that feeling; I will be a happy storyteller if people leave The Keepers angry, and maybe, in an ideal world, that might lead to some systemic changes.
The Keepers is available on Netflix now
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
Gerry Koob

More from TV

R29 Original Series