For American documentarian Robert Greene, filmmaking is, more than any result, a process – or, it might be more accurate to say, an act of processing. He deals with the facts of history, with an empathetic concern not only to convey to audiences what happened in the past but to create a collaborative vehicle of investigation and restaging by which participants can come to terms with the trauma that is the legacy of oppression and power abuses, and experiment with new ways of being that could offer a way out of these harmful legacies. Cinema, in this conception, is not just a storage medium for information but a living means of cathartic healing and creative transformation. In earlier films Actress (2014) and Kate Plays Christine (2016), he examined the essence of performance itself and how female identities are compromised by the toxic mythologies and pressures of celebrity. In Bisbee ‘17, he invited members of the township of Bisbee in Arizona to reconstruct the 1917 deportation of migrant strikers. In so doing, engaging with repressed aspects of collective memory, negotiating their own experiences and relationship to prejudice and resistance in a town with a history of anti-unionism and xenophobia afresh, that once prided itself on an Old West ethos. Procession, made for Netflix, is his most overt cross-over into cinema-as-therapy yet.
Six men who survived sexual abuse at the hands of priests and other powerful figures in the Catholic Church reconstructed individually scripted scenes about their experiences when they were children in a three-year collaboration with Greene and a professional drama therapist. The survivors had essential agency over the shape that the film, Procession, would take, including scouting locations — some of which are the original sites of trauma — and casting. The men all take roles in each others’ segments, building strong solidarity in their desire to tell each others’ stories, and their sense of shared understanding and mission to deliver the justice that has been elusive for them in the court system and from a Church that largely regards them as enemies and is eager to silence them. Greene positions himself as not the creative force but rather the project facilitator, an intense process he documents unobtrusively from the background.
Procession begins with footage of a 2018 press conference over investigations into claims of abuse made against the Catholic clergy in Kansas City, Missouri. Three survivors, who have gone public about their experiences, are in attendance and call out the sheer scale of the cover-up, pointing to more than 230 priests in the Kansas area alone that they know of who are guilty of such crimes. Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is not anomalous, but systematic, in other words, and the statute of limitations, which prevents prosecution for events that happened a long time ago, is its «crown jewel» in getting away with it, the survivors contend. After watching this press conference, Greene contacted those speaking out through their lawyer about the possibility of working with them on the project, and Procession was born. Working together, the survivors formed a space in which to channel their anger over efforts at justice derailed by the «blatant lies» of the Church and a supposedly «independent» review board that has a priest sitting on it, institutions that aid abusers in escaping all responsibility, and in many cases even keeping their positions.
Michael has been waiting for years for his abuser, Father Michael Tierney, to be removed from the priesthood. Ed’s abuser, Bishop Joseph Hart, is under investigation by the Vatican and the Cheyenne police. Still, they are dragging their feet to bring any charges or consequences, seemingly deterred by the publicity storm this would carry. Rather than external justice, the filming process is oriented around the internal work of diminishing the nightmares and the monstrousness of unchecked power that still haunts the survivors decades later. Their trauma is visceral and palpable; the devastation to their lives extensive. But their defiant rage is, in the end, indomitable, matched only perhaps by their empathy for one another in their wordless understanding. In recreating scenes of trust manipulated and betrayed, the credence and factuality of what took place are acknowledged, as is its emotional gravity in upending their senses of security in the world and their freedom as adults to call out and condemn the gaslighting and corrupt hypocrisy, figures with the audacity subjected to them to claim a moral high-ground. A youth cast by the survivors plays them in the scenes, a responsibility he takes on sensitively, as he assists them in forging a link between past and present. One of the men says he will use the film as a tool to help explain to his daughter what happened to him. In this way, we see the documentary form can also become a powerful mode of identity reclamation that includes the future in its memory work.