Filmmaker Ryan White keeps viewers riveted with The Keepers
Almost 50 years after Sister Cathy Sesnik, who taught at Archbishop Keough, an all-girls high school, was murdered in Baltimore, there are still many unanswered questions about the case. Not only has that not stopped former students of hers from seeking the truth, it also caught the attention of gay filmmaker Ryan White (The Case Against 8), director of Netflix doc series The Keepers. White, whose maternal side of the family has roots in Baltimore (a family member was also one of Sister Cathy’s students) initially thought he would be making a feature-length doc about the murder. Before he knew it, the project took on a life of its own. I spoke with White about The Keepers in May 2017.
Gregg Shapiro: Ryan, when did you realize that The Keepers would be a multi-part documentary series and not a two-hour documentary like your previous work?
Ryan White: That’s a great question! It was somewhere at the middle point of making it. It definitely wasn’t the intent from the beginning. When we began The Keepers, (the podcast) Serial hadn’t come out yet, much less (the HBO series) The Jinx or (the Nextflix series) Making a Murderer. There wasn’t the notion or the business model, even, for making long-form documentaries at that time. I assumed we were making a feature-length film. The story kept growing is scope, darkness, twists and turns while we were shooting it. Then, those other documentaries started coming out. We watched all three of them as we were shooting. It wasn’t until Making a Murderer came out that my producer and I looked at each other and said, “We need to do this story justice. To do that, we need to start pursuing networks that will do it episodically with us.” That’s when we found and partnered with Netflix.
GS: Were you raised Catholic?
RW: Yes, I was. Very Catholic. I had a very positive experience in the Catholic Church. It was the center of my life growing up and in high school. I was a eucharistic minister. I actually look back fondly on my experiences with the Catholic Church. GS: How did you first become aware of the unsolved mystery of Sister Cathy’s murder?
RW: Through a personal connection. My aunt went to Archbishop Keough High School. She was Sister Cathy’s student and also a classmate of Jane Doe’s (Jean Wehner). She had connections to both central figures, Cathy and Jean. She connected me with Jean. My mom is from Baltimore, by the way. I was raised in Atlanta, but my mom and all of her siblings and my grandparents were all from Baltimore. My grandparents lived and died there and all of my aunts and uncles stayed there. I’m from a big Baltimore Catholic family.
GS: Did you feel like there was an urgency to speak with those affected by Sister Cathy’s murder because they were part of an aging population?
RW: Not in the sense that it’s going to be too late soon because people are dying off. I wouldn’t say it was an urgency, but I felt the unique, fresh perspective of looking at a mystery through the point-of-view of women of this age. These women are my aunt and my mom – Baltimore women in their 60s who grew up in working class neighborhoods going to Catholic schools. It’s a group I relate to because I grew up around them. I also think it’s a demographic that doesn’t ordinarily get attention in the entertainment industry, in fiction films, but also in documentaries. It’s not that they were aging and it would be too late soon, I was just really drawn to the idea of them being this age and saying it was not too late. I thought that was compelling and an interesting way to tell one of these stories.
GS: The Keepers contains many surprises. What was the most surprising revelation to you?
RW: As you said, The Keepers is full of twists and turns. Every time I came to Baltimore, I was surprised or totally blindsided by something or new information or a new piece of missing evidence that we knew should have been documented. I could give you a million examples. Episode five, for example, when we delve into these two families that popped up during production. Both families were saying that their family member was involved in Sister Cathy’s death. They were two very similar stories from families that didn’t know each other and were from different parts of Maryland. That’s when it dawned on us how convoluted the story was. There was so much folklore and urban legend and family secrets and narratives over the past 45 years because the murder was never solved that we had our work cut out for us trying to figure out which version of the truth actually happened.
GS: One of the families that you are talking about is the Schmidts, correct?
GS: There is an unexpected gay element to The Keepers – Sister Cathy’s gay neighbor Billy Schmidt and his boyfriend Skippy. As a gay filmmaker, how important was it to maintain that aspect of Billy’s identity in the story?
RW: That’s a good question. I don’t think it would have been part of the documentary if it didn’t directly relate to the evidence at hand. The relationship between Billy and Skippy – as you saw in the series, their family member believed they were in a romantic relationship – was integral to whether or not he was involved with Cathy’s murder or not. It was relevant. I don’t think that, as a gay filmmaker, I would have included that he may or may not have been gay if I didn’t feel like it was part of the inner-workings of how he could have been involved in Cathy’s murder, but it played a part. That’s why we included it.
GS: For many years, I think nuns were the ones with bad reputations, particularly as strict taskmasters when it came to Catholic schools, as well as being subservient to the priests. Would you agree that John Patrick Shanley’s play and movie Doubt helped to change that?
RW: That’s an interesting question! I know that I was completely infatuated with the idea of telling a story about a nun. It’s such a patriarchal world that we live in, and the Catholic church is a very patriarchal institution. Growing up Catholic, I didn’t know a lot about nuns. They’re so mysterious, even to us Catholics. The idea that a nun was going to be a central figure in my documentary was a drawing factor to me. I have to say that one of the most enjoyable parts about making The Keepers was getting to learn about nuns, these nuns. All of Cathy’s friends who are throughout the documentary are some of the most amazing women I’ve ever met. Most of Cathy’s class left the convent and the nun-hood at some point, and went into lay jobs and most had families. They went on to do incredible things; playing a part in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. That blew my mind. We have this image of nuns being reserved, private, clandestine people. To learn that they were on these cultural vanguard movements was mind-blowing. I’m glad you asked that because I hope that The Keepers can shed some light on our misconceptions about what a nun was and probably still is.
GS: The Keepers won’t do much to change Baltimore’s already tarnished reputation. On the other hand, Boston appears to have survived. Why do you think the Catholic church has been able to continue to thrive in these cities in light of these kinds of scandals?
RW: I think people still see the good in the institution. Obviously, the Catholic Church has done a lot of good things throughout its history. People grow up with that religion, like I did, they want to hold onto that. I don’t by any means hope that The Keepers leads to the downfall of the Catholic Church. Just the opposite, I hope it leads to the Catholic Church acknowledging what happened and showing transparency finally in being a part of the healing in the communities. In some ways, it could lead back to the building up of trust in that church.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of Fifty Degrees (Seven Kitchens, 2016), selected by Ching-In Chen as co-winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize. Other books by Shapiro include the short story collections How to Whistle (Lethe Press, 2016) and Lincoln Avenue (Squares and Rebels Press, 2014), the chapbook GREGG SHAPIRO: 77 (Souvenir Spoon Press, 2012), and the poetry collection Protection (Gival Press, 2008).
He has work forthcoming in the anthology Reading Queer: Poetry in a Time of Chaos (Anhinga Press, 2018). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBT and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.
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