How ‘Procession’ Re-Enacted Catholic Church Sexual Abuse to Help Survivors Heal

TheWrap magazine: “One of the goals of the film is to de-power these spaces, these robes of power,” director Robert Greene says

Procession. Michael Sandridge in Procession. Cr. Netflix © 2021

A version of this story about “Procession” first appeared in the Documentary Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Director Robert Greene has spent much of his career examining how re-enactment and performance can lead to deeper truths in movies like “Kate Plays Christine” and “Bisbee ’17,” but performance takes the form of therapy in “Procession.”

In the film, a group of six survivors of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests create their own scenes in depicting the most traumatic moments of their lives, playing the perpetrators and confronting the past.

I understand this movie began when you saw a video of a press conference with some survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.
Yeah. I wouldn’t say it was a crisis, but I was trying to think very deeply about why I make documentaries. What is the point? What is the goal of making these movies? And I really settled on this idea that if I’m not able to help people, why do I want to do it? That sort of led me down this journey that culminated with seeing that video. I was struck by the power of what their words, their faces.

I was also really taken by the fact that this is the one thing that I usually can’t handle. Hearing about child abuse — prior to making this film, this is a story that I would turn off. And it really struck me that I was contributing to the same silence that enabled the whole thing. So it was this combination of where I was in my life and my work and then feeling so moved by seeing them is kind of what started the process.

In the past, your films have often made use of re-enactments. Have your ideas about their value changed? 
Yeah. I’m discovering that re-enactments were never a thing that I cared about per se. It’s that idea that you can stage things to work through things. In “Kate Plays Christine,” it was watching us try to stage something that shouldn’t be seen. In “Bisbee,” it was making a point about American history and the historical trauma it creates. But here, it is about pushing toward something therapeutic. It is what I think I was trying to do before, but I just didn’t understand the language. 

Terrick Trobough in “Procession.” (Netflix)

I know the power of making a movie together — building a set, taking on clothes, even clothes as charged and awful as the uniforms of these abusers. One of the goals of the film is to de-power these spaces, these robes of power — taking the clothing and the symbols and the rituals away from God and the Church and putting them back in the space of human understanding.

In this film, you are the instigator of these men going into dark places in a way they wouldn’t have done except for your movie. That must carry with it a significant responsibility.
It certainly does. It was really an effort with (survivors lawyer) Rebecca Randles, who has worked with these guys for many, many years, and Monica (Phinney), the trauma therapist. We kind of looked at it as we were creating a sandbox that had safe walls around it where we could play and try to do something productive. And it was designed to have multiple checks in the process.

The men wanted to do this because facing this kind of trauma is exhausting. It crushes you every single day in tiny ways. And they had tried everything else. This was almost like, “What have I got to lose?” And they wanted you, the viewers and other survivors, to see that healing is possible, that taking steps forward in life is actually possible. I think we’ve helped move their lives forward by doing this together, and they helped me move my life forward. I’m actually now in therapy for the first time in my life — and not because this was so tough, but because I see the potential of it. These guys helped save me as much as the process helped them.

There are moments in the film that feel like real breakthroughs for these men. Did you feel that as you were filming them?
Totally. I would even go as far as to say that we probably have more footage that feels like breakthroughs, but we didn’t want to overstate things. Healing is a very tricky thing. There’s the idea that nothing that will ever fully heal these guys because of what happened — what was taken from them cannot be given back. But I do think this process was helpful.

It was the opposite of what they’ve been told again and again and again, which is, “We don’t believe you.” This process was the opposite of that, and in those moments, absolutely there were many breakthroughs. And the truth is, it’s still not over. Every single time we show the film and they can talk about the film and they can be in front of people and not be ashamed, those cathartic moments are still happening. Honestly, I think this is a lifetime project. The film is just a snapshot of an overall process that we’re going to be on together for the rest of our lives.

There are a number of nonfiction films in the last year that have explored various aspects of religion. Is there something in these times that draws people to look at religion in their films?
I think we’re at a point where we’re exploring. There is, unfortunately, a very strong relationship between religion and trauma, because religious systems are so dominant over our lives in a lot of ways. And I think what is actually happening is not really an exploration of religion, but more an exploration of the meaning of what some of the stuff that happened to all of us. I think we’re just starting the process, as a society, of trying to understand trauma.

And so to me, that’s what’s in the ether. How did religion, how did churches, how did the individuals within churches hurt or help and how do they help fix? Because they’re such a powerful part of so many people’s lives, iit’s crucial to understanding the sort of trauma that we’ve all faced.

Read more from TheWrap’s documentary magazine here.