In Procession, Survivors of Catholic Priest Abuse Confront Their Experiences

In an interview with Jezebel, director Robert Greene discusses his experimental approach to filmmaking and therapy

In Procession, Survivors of Catholic Priest Abuse Confront Their Experiences

The film Procession, which debuts on Netflix today, confronts and thereby attempts to mitigate the memories that haunt its participants most. The project gathers six survivors of sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic church—Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, and Tom Viviano—and has them revisit and recreate scenes from their past adjacent to the abuse they experienced. Director Robert Greene blended drama therapy techniques and filmmaking elements like location-scouting and set-building; the result is devastating and bleak and, apparently for them, cathartic. As viewers, we see the nightmares start to recede as the participants, an effective support group, hold each other up while exorcising the demons that came directly from the Catholic church.

Greene (Kate Plays Christine, Bisbee ‘17) was inspired to explore this subject matter after watching a press conference held in Kansas City, Missouri, in August 2018. It featured several of the men who would go on to become Procession’s subjects, as well as attorney Rebecca Randles, who represented them, as well as many sexual abuse survivors in the area. During it, she announced that over 230 priests in the Kansas City area “that we know of” that had been accused of abuse. Their crimes were obfuscated for years, sometimes with the assistance of higher-ups, who shuffled accused abusers to other dioceses with few apparent consequences. The now middle-aged subjects of Procession detail their frustrations with attempting to achieve justice via church processes in the legal system. The despair is palpable.

“I was like, you know, maybe we can help,” Greene recalled after seeing the press conference. “This is my seventh film now, and I looked at the techniques that we had learned and the things that we had done [in previous films] with staging scenes and how that had been helpful and how I know making a movie is helpful. I was just like, why not? Why not try?”

And try he did, in a process that was three years in the making (the covid-19 pandemic delayed things considerably). Greene talked to Jezebel about his filmmaking philosophy, borrowing from drama therapy, and the safeguards he had in place for his subjects. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

JEZEBEL: While there is growing evidence of its effectiveness, drama therapy is still considered experimental. Did that concern you at all?

ROBERT GREENE: Very importantly, we weren’t doing drama therapy. That was my original idea. I went to a group of drama therapists and I said, “I want to do drama therapy on film,” and they’re like, “You can’t do that.” It’s too experimental, basically. Drama therapy does not include a camera and editing. But I have faith in filmmaking. I knew how confronting in this really subversive way, like transforming the spaces into what we wanted them to be… I just believed that that was correct and drama therapy backed that up. That’s how I looked at it: I believe this is correct, and there’s a discipline up there that is backing this up, and we have a drama therapist [Monica Phinney] here. A lot of my confidence came from editing. I am an editor. I know how to make Dan be able to watch this film back and feel proud of himself. I know how to make Mike watch the film and say, “Look how I changed over the course of the film. My anger is justified and I’m being heard.” I knew that I could edit the scenes to give that back to the guys. And then an audience watching it is so important. It’s maybe the most important part of the whole process because the finished thing matters even more than the experiences of making the thing.

What made you want to go there with this difficult subject matter in the first place?

Making it visible takes powers away from those nightmares, literally and figuratively. Those are nightmarish scenarios. Those are nightmarish images. It’s a nightmarish situation and it becomes actual nightmares unless you can do something to diminish it. So weirdly, to make the film feel so dark and appropriately horrible, that helps diminish the power of the images. A movie can be contained. Monica Phinney, the drama therapist, she talks a lot about distancing. Making it a movie allows you to distance it from the daily trauma that you’re replaying again and again and again and again. Projecting that out allows you to see it. I think these guys knew that and they certainly know it now. They were a big part of the editing process. They’ve been a big part of the rollout process. I think watching it back for them is the proof that these things should not be hidden. The shame comes from: “I have to hide this because it’s a mark on me.” But when you suddenly don’t have to hide it anymore, that pressure gets alleviated.

I thought what Monica said about externalizing things, thereby making them easier to process from a logical perspective made a ton of sense.

It’s about moving trauma from one part of the body to the other. And that’s what drama therapy is about. I mean, we did not do drama therapy in the film, but we definitely inspired by the ideas of drama therapy. I think the film is really a conversation between the things that I had been working towards and then the things that she is is working towards. And that’s what’s so cool about it. Like, I think you kind of come up with a new language.

You were actually able to film in some Catholic churches. Did you get pushback from higher-ups regarding the damning nature of your subject matter?

It’s a whole dramatic story that could be in the film, but we deliberately left it out. What we found to be the problem was this: If we made it too dramatic, like, “Churches are saying no! Churches are saying no! …And now churches are saying yes,” it almost gave the churches too much credit. We didn’t want to make it like a twist, because that just gave it too much power. It’s like, “Yeah, we should be in the churches, so now they’re the churches.” I think the real feeling also on a narrative level when they’re in that church in Wyoming, I think you feel the Catholic Church quote-unquote has let them in. And so there was sort of no reason to ratchet up some drama that also would have given the wrong impression.

Do you think that the church let you in specifically for PR reasons?

Oh sure, I think partly, but I think there are good people. You see Kathleen Chastain, the victim services coordinator. She was in the Kansas City diocese at the time. You see her openly working with them. She absolutely is a good person who tried to help us, and I think she rallied other good people trying to help us. There’s a subtle thing in the film when [Michael Sandridge is] talking about the renovations of the spaces, that’s because all those spaces have been completely changed from the abusive spaces that they were, which is both awful and illuminating about how the church is moving forward. They just want to kind of renovate. There’s actually some good in that, too. It’s good not to live seeing this in the past.

Rebecca says in the movie that she was leery when you reached out, wondering if the production should even happen at all. How did you resolve that?

I have this belief in the power of art, this belief in the power of filmmaking. I had read The Body Keeps the Score, the book about how trauma is stored in the body. One of the ways that you can work on it is through drama therapy, basically. In my mind, if I realize I can help someone and I don’t do it, then that’s being part of the problem, and I don’t want to be part of any problems. But the doubt that Rebecca expresses in the beginning is crucial. That first meeting that you see is not a us-pitching-them-the project meeting. That is: “Should we do it or not?” We were prepared: If we decide today that this does not go forward, that we tell the people who gave us development funding we’re not going for it. “Sorry!”

And that was really how we approached every single shoot. We built metaphorical rooms for them to walk into—they built them themselves—but there were always doors that they could walk out of. Every single day it was like, “You don’t have to do any of this. So do we do it?” And there was doubt from Rebecca, doubt from Monica, doubt from me. I was sometimes the biggest doubter. Sometimes I was the most scared and these guys were like, “Don’t treat us like children. We want to do this.” That was some days. Some days they were like puddles and I had to pick them up or someone else had to pick them up. Every single step of the process, even when it got tough, it was always like, “We’re continuing to move forward.” And that continues today. The movie’s out and every day we’re still talking about this.

Besides explicit agency, were there other safeguards that you had in place to make sure that this wasn’t exploitative, that it wasn’t going to traumatize so much as to be useless?

Having Rebecca, [therapist Sasha Black], and Monica around was big. They were big safety rails. The guys then became safety rails. Their family members became safety rails. But the thing about retraumatization is—and this has been explained to me by several therapists, several psychologists—retraumatization comes from when you take power away from someone. It almost never happens when you give power. If you continue the pattern of taking power away, that’s when someone can get hurt. And as long as you don’t do that and it’s actually difficult to make a movie and not take power, because there are power dynamics in a film that are crazy basically. So actively trying to decentralize power in the filmmaking process was a big part of what we were doing, basically. That’s why the “film by” credit [listing all of the subjects] at the beginning of the film is not a gesture. It’s not a gimmick. It’s like it’s a realization of what the filmmaking actually was and why it matters.

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