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In ‘Procession,’ Six Sexual-Abuse Survivors Turn Their Trauma into Movies

Documentarian Robert Greene discusses the extraordinarily cathartic creative collaboration he underwent with his subjects — and why he thinks it’s up to the audience to complete their film

In a career that’s proving to be one of the most distinctive among his generation of nonfiction filmmakers, Robert Greene crafts documentaries that are often about the act of creation itself. His 2014 film Actress studied real-life actress Brandy Burre as she tried to return to the business after taking time off to be a mother, the movie turning into an examination of how women’s societal roles are often a kind of performance. Two years later, Kate Plays Christine starred actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepared to play Christine Chubbuck, the Florida television journalist who killed herself on camera in 1974, investigating the ethics of portraying such a tragic figure. And in 2018, he delivered Bisbee ‘17, which focused on the forced deportation of immigrants out of Bisbee, Arizona in 1917, with Greene casting current locals to role-play the horrifying historical event. He constantly asks us to question the very notion of “nonfiction,” exploring what happens to reality when you put a camera in front of it. 

His latest effort may be his most moving. Procession was inspired by an August 2018 press conference in Kansas City, Missouri, only a few hours away from where Greene lives. Rebecca Randles, an attorney for a handful of men who accused local Catholic priests of sexually assaulting them when they were boys, told reporters, “We have over 230 priests, that we know of, that have been sexually abusive in this area.” Inspired by the men’s courage to speak out about what they’d endured as children, Green proposed a project in which survivors could process their trauma through scripted scenes they would write and shoot alongside him. Ultimately, six middle-aged men — including three who’d been part of that press conference — signed up, with Greene documenting their journey from getting to know one another to completing their short films. 

Procession, which opens in New York on November 12th, and then L.A. and San Francisco (as well as on Netflix) the following Friday, may call to mind other recent documentaries, such as The Work (which chronicled a unique form of group therapy) and Dick Johnson Is Dead (in which a filmmaker staged scenes with her father, imagining how he might die as a way for her to come to terms with his growing dementia). Greene, who also served as Procession’s editor, stays out of the way as much as possible, letting his six subjects take center stage as they concoct short films that touch on the pain they’ve carried around with them for decades. Although the men sometimes act in their films, and in each other’s, they also cast a young local performer, Terrick Trobough, who is often the stand-in for their younger selves in these dramas. We see the survivors putting together their shorts, as well as clips from the actual films, but what soon becomes clear is that we’re not judging the shorts on their creativity or originality — rather, we come to understand that these emotionally-charged vignettes have long been embedded inside these men, hoping to be finally let free. 

The six men aren’t professional filmmakers — although one of them, Dan Laurine, is a locations manager — but if anything, it’s their lack of experience that makes their shorts so striking. There’s an unguarded quality to their work — such as when Joe Eldred, fighting through triggered memories, instructs fellow survivor Tom Viviano, who’s portraying a priest in his short, exactly how to play a scene in a confessional. But that candor is just as present in these men’s intimate conversations. Whether it’s Ed Gavagan, a New York contractor who grew up in Wyoming, where he was abused by a priest who’d been reassigned there after working in Kansas City, or Michael Sandridge, an interior designer who remains a devout Catholic, there’s a fragile quality to these survivors, which they recognize in each other, creating a bond between them. 

And then there’s Mike Foreman, swallowed up by rage that he can’t get justice for what happened to him as a boy, obsessed with the findings of an independent review board that dismissed his accusations as “not credible.” That endless fury seems to have permanently wounded him: Remarkably at one point, he talks about the fact that he’s never had a girlfriend.      

Over Zoom, Greene recently detailed the experience of collaborating with his subjects, and how meeting with a drama therapist helped bring the project into sharper focus. (He’s very clear that what goes on in Procession is therapeutic, as opposed to therapy.) But he also discussed the responsibility he felt not to re-traumatize these men in the process — and why he feels the viewer has to “complete the project.” 

Before you could reach out to the survivors to suggest this project, you had to wrap your own head around the prospect of spending time focusing on pretty emotionally demanding subject matter. I wondered how you got to the point where you thought, “I want to take this on.”

So, we were doing a Q&A in San Francisco for Bisbee ‘17, and someone asked me if I had a therapist [on set] for the recreations at the end of the film. And I just double-talked out of it: “Oh no, well, we didn’t really need that…” It sent me into a complete spiral: “Did we need that? Did I do something wrong?” My sister-in-law, who was with me, was like, “You should read The Body Keeps the Score,” which is a book about how trauma is stored in the body. And one of the ways that you can work through trauma is not just through talk therapy, but through acting out — through, basically, drama therapy. I didn’t really have a name for it yet — I mean, I’d certainly been aware of psychodrama, but the intentional use of theatrical devices for therapeutic means wasn’t on the forefront of my radar. 

[Learning that] sent me in this little bit of a spiral: “Oh, that’s what I’ve been doing this whole time [in my films], but not doing it well or not knowing about it or not really recognizing the possibilities, really.” At the same time, I was thinking, “I don’t really know why I should film anyone anymore. I genuinely don’t really understand. Except to plug people’s stories into a machine, I don’t really know why we put cameras in people’s faces.” It was a rolling bunch of crises that led me to this place of, “No, actually the things I know about filmmaking are that they can be incredibly therapeutic, and I just haven’t activated that in my own work.” And I feel like maybe a lot of people haven’t activated it in theirs, either. 

Then there was the Pennsylvania grand jury news, and I also was having dreams about priests in Missouri, for some reason — there were these swirling things that just led me to this moment of finding this news conference with three of the six guys and Rebecca. But [I knew] I couldn’t reach out to survivors — I needed to go to Rebecca, that was the first step. So it was multiple levels of crises about where I am and what the point of my work is in the world.

When you reached out to Rebecca, did you share the crises you were going through?

It was a beat later — it was [more] like, “This is what I’d like to do.” And that was flawed, very much so. So what I just described was a series of serendipities, right? We call Rebecca, and at the same time, the North American Drama Therapy Association were [also] having their annual conference in Kansas City. So I basically had this rush — a lot of my ideas come very quickly and they’re fully formed. It was like, “Oh, I’m going to do drama therapy on screen — that’s what I want to do.” 

I pitched a room full of drama therapists — really, the best of the best. Monica Phinney, who’s the drama therapist in our film, was running that conference, but she wasn’t in the room that morning. I pitched [them], and they just shot down all my ideas. They were just like, “Absolutely not, you cannot do therapy on screen,” for a couple reasons — cameras and editing completely transform the therapy process. So that day was the day I triple-underlined the idea that it’s not about therapy, it’s about being therapeutic. And that day I also knew we weren’t going to be doing drama therapy. Whatever it was that we were going to be doing — and this was way before we knew what that was, even close to it — we knew that it was going to be influenced by drama therapy and we were going to dive in from there.

From left to right: Joe Eldred, Ed Gavagan, Michael Sandridge, Tom Viviano, Dan Laurine, Mike Foreman

And in the press notes, Monica mentions that what we see in the film isn’t technically drama therapy. So how would you describe what it is that the survivors are undergoing?

I think it’s a new thing, but I think it’s a very old thing, too — it’s filmmaking, right? Monica as a drama therapist saw the potential in our filmmaking process, and we as filmmakers saw the potential in the drama-therapy process. Those two disciplines are overlapping and talking to each other, and that’s why she’s there in the film — she’s there as a trained therapist, and she’s there to help make sure people are okay. But just as importantly, she was there at the idea stage and throughout the process for her and I to work together and figure out, “Well, what are you learning? And what am I learning? And how can we continue to make this safe and also powerful in the way that the guys wanted?” 

It was clear that [the survivors] didn’t just want to go through therapy for themselves. They wanted to help themselves, but they wanted to help themselves by helping others. And that was a component that you just can’t account for in a drama-therapeutic process. The most important thing is [understanding] editing, shooting and directing aren’t really the same thing as the role-play aspect, which is the key component of drama therapy. Drama therapy is a very strong discipline — it has five stages, it’s very purposeful, like any therapy is. We were going all over the place. 

Rebecca cast the film, and she picked [survivors] that she thought could benefit from this — and, most importantly, guys whose voice had been taken away at some point in their quest for some kind of justice. The thing that she taught me was just as long as you never take power away from them — which is easier said than done, of course, in a filmmaking process that’s all about power relations, frankly — and as long as choices were always theirs to make, we would be doing the opposite of the effect of the trauma, and therefore doing therapeutic work. And for [the survivors], they didn’t want to be treated with kid gloves — [that] was a big part of it. They wanted to show what it was like to go through what they went through, and I’m not talking about the abuse. They wanted to show what it was like to go through this — trying to find a step forward, trying to find brotherhood.

Obviously, this isn’t a reality-show competition where we’re judging the films and determining which one’s the best. But other than Dan, who does location scouting, these guys don’t have filmmaking backgrounds. During the process of them coming up with their scripts, did they struggle with “I don’t know how filmmaking works or storytelling works”?

Well, they have different levels. Ed is incredibly creative — he’s a great writer and he’s an architect, so he’s a creative person. Michael is an interior designer, so the two of them are very creative. Dan works in film, but he’s not just a locations person — he works throughout film; he does all kinds of production things in Kansas City. So, we played to people’s strengths. Ed drew those storyboards that you see in the film — he could really visualize it, he’s a cinephile. 

Michael really didn’t have a literal understanding of what we were doing a lot of the times, but what he did know is, “These [religious] objects matter, and I want it to feel this way,” and so, from that, we could create a script and then co-direct with him these scenes in order to feel a certain way. He would speak in terms [of] the rituals themselves and the importance of the rituals — it was our job to interpret that visually. And because he is a visual person, he could basically approve things and come up with his own ideas within that framework. 

Mike, on the other hand, is so literal. In his mind, all you have to do is see what happened [to him with the review board] and then you would see, “This is horrible.” What we tried to get him to understand was, “That’s true, Mike, but you can’t just show it. The whole point is, we have to transform this in some ways.” So for Mike, it was such an arduous process of getting him to go from very literal — “Why can’t we just show a reenactment of the independent review board scene so the public can see how terrible this was?” — to, finally, he understood. 

All these guys were very involved in the editing process as well, and at first [Mike] was like, “Frankly, I wish this was much longer.” Then, by the end, he was able to help me edit it down — that was the most therapeutic thing for Mike. He has seen the film a hundred times — truly, he’s seen it so many times. He’s seen all his footage — he has been very focused on the material. And just watching him transition from this literal way of thinking into something that’s much more transformative is the reason why today he has a girlfriend. He’s got his first girlfriend in his life because he’s learning to adapt — he’s learning to be more flexible. 

From left to right: Ed Gavagan, Michael Sandridge, Dan Laurine

You collaborate with them on their films, but how much did they take on the air of filmmakers in terms of creative conversations: “This is my story, and so it has to be told this way”?

You see it in the film where Michael is holding the script, and he’s like, “No, do it this way, say it this way.” And when various versions of that started to happen, it was quite beautiful because that was [them] literally seizing control. I mean, you see Joe seize control of the confessional scene to do what he needed to do in that scene. It becomes something wholly different because of what Joe needed it to be.

But one key thing in the collaborative process: It wasn’t about abdicating my responsibility as a director or editor. I’d say [to them], “What do you want?” And a lot of times, they’d lean on me [for more]: “I need you to tell me how this is going to work.” Eventually, it was like, “Okay, we need to seize this and deliver for them the vision that they’re trying to express.” That’s very much how it came [about] — and that very much is the editing process [as well]. They gave copious amounts of notes and thoughts, and we talked about things. When other people would give us notes, I’d bring that back to the guys and we’d respond together about how to handle certain notes. But ultimately they were like, “You’re the editor — we need you to step up.” 

I grew up in the Midwest, and so I recognize these types of men and how they process pain. Mike’s anger is definitely something that strikes a chord: I’m going through all this hurt, but I deal with it by being angry. And Mike is angry a lot in the film. How hard was it to be around that anger all the time?

Well, it was harder for the other guys. Michael was very blunt with him early: “I can’t be around you if you’re going to be like this.” Cut to the Q&A the other night in Kansas City and St. Louis, both of them — [Michael] said [to Mike], “I couldn’t be around you, and now I can. And I’m proud of you for how far you’ve come.” 

For me, Mike is such a purely good person — he just cannot fathom how [his case] is not open-and-shut. I very much empathize with that. So it was never difficult for me [to be around him] because I could be very blunt with Mike in a way that other people have not been able to. That forged a bond with us that’s unbreakable because I’d just be like, “Mike, you’ve told me this. Mike, you’ve said this already.” And he’d [get mad], but I’m like, “Mike, do you want me to hang up the phone?” He’s like, “No,” and then we’d advance the conversation. I always saw Mike as the easiest guy to help, because all he wanted was to be heard — all he wanted was brotherhood.

And you picked up on that instinctively in terms of how best to deal with him.

You have to look him in the eye. You have to talk to him. You have to be a friend. I knew that if I was the only one who could withstand him at first, then I’d have to be that person. But the truth is, the crew — every one of us — loved him. With the other guys, it’s just a lot because they feel the same anger and they’re trying not to let that anger overtake them. Mike didn’t care about letting the anger overtake him, which is a totally legitimate response to what happened to him. It was really about getting Mike to understand that the other guys aren’t judging him — they’re just protecting themselves. And I’m not going to judge him at all — we’re going to work together, me and the whole team.

He was really not happy with the first cut because he thought he was diminished. He didn’t think the version of the words that he wanted to say were best represented. But then he gave me notes, and I did them — not just how he wanted, but how it worked, and he could see that. He could see that I was taking his ideas, and then he could see that editing can make him go from [seeming] off-putting to involving. And he saw that and he’s embraced it. 

This is why it’s not drama therapy, right? Drama therapy doesn’t involve editing. Editing is the most powerful thing — I got to show Dan how much of a hero he was for the other guys. When they see themselves [in the final film], it gives them a new version of the story. It’s no longer in their head anymore — it can escape their head, in a way. Dan kept watching the film because he just felt there was a duty to watch the film, and eventually we’re like, “You know what, no, you do not have to watch the film. You built this so that other people could see it, so you never have to watch it again. You never have to experience it again.” 

That mentality of “we built this together” — I mean, I know it sounds a little cheesy, but it’s the power of art, man. It really is the power of creation and the power of making things. That’s what it is, and it worked. 

Michael Sandridge

At one point in Procession, Michael says, “We’re all mentally broken people.” Is that how all six men felt?

They all accept that — I mean, that’s the first step. And that step maybe takes 30 or 40 years: “This broke me.” The thing is, the abuse isn’t just sexual abuse as a child — it’s abuse by a system that indoctrinated them, that made them believe that these men were closer to God that were abusing them. It’s a system where all their mothers and fathers thought it was best to just follow along in the system because that’s the way the system works. It’s a system that uses rituals of power to control. It’s such a damaging kind of abuse. 

When Michael says, “We’re all mentally broken people,” he’s almost laughing, because to him, it’s almost a victory to say, “Yeah, I’m fucked up. You know why I’m fucked up? I’m fucked up because of this, and now I got to do something about it.” And as Michael also says in the film, “I’m not going to let them win.” Part of not letting them win is admitting, “Yeah, you broke me.” One of the biggest things for Michael is, “I was weird my whole life for a reason. And I just want people to understand why I’m so weird.” 

Dan will say the same thing, and Ed will say the same thing — they’ll all tell you the same thing: “This messed me up in ways that are just now coming into focus.” The way that this trauma works on your body and your brain, it’s incredibly overwhelming. And so them admitting, “We’re mentally broken people” is a way of saying, “But we’re going to do something about it. And we want you, the audience, to know if you feel mentally broken too, you’re not done.” They know the one important factor of all this is they consider themselves the lucky ones — because they’re not dead, they’re not on drugs, they’re not in the streets. That’s what happens to a lot of people who are abused this way.

What’s your own religious background?

None, nothing. My thesis documentary film was about religion in the South — I made a film about religion, but it was too early for me to know it was [really] about the performance of religion, which plays out somewhat in this film. I was raised in the South and Protestant, but then my grandmother’s Jewish and when I moved to Brooklyn, I felt like a Jew for the first time in my life. So there’s this mixture of basically agnostic/atheist. I had no experience with the Catholic Church going into this, which gave me a lot of power, actually.

Right, you’re the objective outsider. Obviously, the Church doesn’t come off well in the film, but I wondered if you learned anything about the religion from going through this process with the survivors? 

The Catholic Church doesn’t come off as horribly as they could in the film, frankly. One of our goals is to make a film where Catholics can watch the film and find some avenue toward healing themselves, because I don’t think the Church has done a good job of allowing real healing from this. 

A lot of these places that [the survivors] went back to have been demolished. The actual rectory where [some of the] pedophiles were is gone in St. Elizabeth’s. That confessional [that was reenacted in Joe’s short] has been turned into a closet. That’s both horrifying and also some sign of movement forward. 

There are people [within the Church] like Kathleen Chastain — who’s in the film and was the victim services’ coordinator in the Kansas City Diocese — who [were] willing to help us. Bishop Biegler was willing to let us come in and film. One of the interesting things about this film is that it’s six very different beliefs about the Church from these six different guys. Mike certainly wouldn’t agree, but I find hope in what Dan and Michael — and even Ed, to some degree — see, [which is] some sliver of hope in the human beings who want to make the Church better. I can’t help but have that same hope.

Terrick Trobough and Joe Eldred

You have said that the viewer “completes the project.” Does that mean us as an audience bearing witness?

These guys wouldn’t have done what they’ve done in the film — they wouldn’t have come together — without a camera present. Coming together is the most important part, but the camera being present is crucial. They began this process all deeply ashamed of what had happened to them, and they wanted to go through and face that shame and show you, the viewer, what it means to try to move forward. They want to show you what it means to confront fears. Joe wants you to see his physical reaction to that confessional, because if you see his physical reaction, you will believe him and you will see that you can also survive confronting that darkest feeling. The camera is essential to everything. And because the camera is essential to everything, the audience is essential to everything. And it’s a matter of bearing witness. It’s a matter of [the viewer] saying, “Okay, you wanted me to see this? Well, I’m going to see it now.” 

One of the motivating factors to start the film was that this was the one news story that I couldn’t listen to. And so, for me, I had to bear witness myself to support them and help alleviate some of the shame. We’re asking the audience to do the same thing.

Is it easier for you now to listen to stories like that after making Procession?

It’s horrifying every time, but through the film, I’ve become a receptacle, I’d say, for a lot of people’s stories. People who see the film, people who want to talk about [their stories], I’m comfortable with that. 

I’m in therapy now for the first time in my life — not because I was traumatized by the film, but because I see the possibilities in therapy. And I think if the film creates these conversations and we have to bear the responsibility, that’s a responsibility we’re willing to bear. I don’t think it’s ever easy to hear any of these stories, frankly. But I know the value in listening.