Empowerment takes on a whole new meaning and dimension in director Robert Greene’s Procession (Netflix), one of 15 feature documentaries to make the Oscars shortlist. Looking to give greater authorship to the people who are the subjects of his film, Greene initiated a bold experiment spawned by his own grappling with the power of documentaries.
Greene, an award-winning documentarian (Bisbee ‘17, Kate Plays Christine), asked himself, “What’s the value of making films about people, the value of putting a camera in someone’s face and asking them to express themselves, to tell their story often for you, less for them?” Instead he embarked on a journey to try to find “what power really looks like and how it can be transferred from me and the crew to the people on screen.”
In the case of Procession, those on screen are six Midwestern men–all survivors of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests and clergy–who come together to direct a drama therapy-inspired experiment designed to collectively work through their trauma. As part of a deeply collaborative filmmaking process, they create fictional scenes based on memories, dreams and experiences, meant to explore the church rituals, culture and hierarchies that enabled silence around their abuse. In the face of a failed legal system, we watch these men reclaim the spaces that allowed their assault, revealing the possibility for catharsis and redemption through a new-found fraternity.
While not drama therapy itself, Procession tapped into the spirit of that discipline as Greene and the six abuse survivors–Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge and Tom Viviano–connected with consultant Monica Phinney, a registered drama therapist who works in sexual assault prevention and education, and is experienced in using storytelling to achieve therapeutic goals for survivors and witnesses.
Working through trauma, issues and empowering these men in a positive manner took a thoughtful and caring process, yielding a film that was three years in the making–with the understanding that any or all of the survivors/auteurs could walk away at any time if they felt threatened or that the experience was doing harm to them. Again, the subjects had the ultimate power, able to shut down the film at any point if they so decided.
Greene’s involvement was sparked when he saw a news clip of a press conference in which three of the men were accompanied by their lawyer, Rebecca Randles. Greene said he was moved to tears and started to develop in his mind’s eye what this documentary could be. He reached out to Randles who provided insight as to who among her many abuse victim clients might benefit most from the process. Phinney was then brought in to provide expertise as a consultant, working to safely and constructively help Eldred, Foreman, Gavagan, Laurine, Sandridge and Viviano to create in a safe way fictional scenes that show cinematically what they most wanted to reveal about their stories–and how the silence imposed by the Church led to their profound suffering.
Greene shared that sometimes he would wonder if documentaries change the world, adding, “I know for sure they change the lives of the people on screen.” Procession was made to make that change as deeply positive, rewarding and cathartic as possible for Eldred, Foreman, Gavagan, Laurine, Sandridge and Viviano, empowering them to tell their stories how they saw fit.
Editor/advocate/friend/emotional support animal
While an accomplished director, Greene has his roots in editing. And he came to see his role on the film not only as an editor providing a directorial hand but perhaps first and foremost as an “advocate,” “friend” and “emotional support animal” on set, an advocate for the men’s ideas, for translating those ideas onto the screen, and being there for them “in whatever way they needed.”
A lasting bond developed as Greene remains very close with all of his survivors/fellow filmmakers. “We’re friends for life,” said Greene, noting that he will continue to feel their influence personally and on his work.
Beyond creating at times fantastical genre-influenced scenes, the survivors at times used the cameras to chronicle places in a way that could be of therapeutic value. For example Gavagan filmed in the cathedral where much of his abuse took place. Similarly Eldred revisited several places that haunted him to try to get rid of the nightmares.
The one actor cast for Procession was Terrick Trobough, a youngster who portrayed the collective “one boy” in their scenes. In his director’s statement, Greene shared, “Terrick was cast for what Dan (Laurine) and Michael (Sandridge) would call his ‘inner strength’ and in the film, he doesn’t embody victimhood as much as survivorship. Terrick’s family became a crucial part of the process, as well.”
Procession adds to a Greene filmography which includes the alluded to Bisbee ‘17 and Kate Plays Christine. Bisbee ‘17 premiered at Sundance, aired on PBS’s P.O.V. and was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2018 Gotham Awards. Kate Plays Christine (2016) earned an award at Sundance. Greene also turned out Actress (2014) and Kati With an I (2010), both nominated for Gotham Awards. Greene was an inaugural Sundance Art of Nonfiction fellow in 2015 and is a three-time Best Director nominee at the Cinema Eye Honors. His first documentary, Owning The Weather (2009), was screened at the COP15 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Greene has edited over a dozen features, including: Her Smell (2018), Golden Exits (2017), Queen of Earth (2015) and Listen Up Philip (2014) for director Alex Ross Perry; Nick Berardini’s Killing Them Safely (2015); Amanda Rose Wilder’s Approaching The Elephant (2014); Charles Poekel’s Spirit Awards-nominated Christmas, Again (2015); and Douglas Tirola’s Hey Bartender (2013).
This is the 10th installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 94th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, February 8, 2022. The 94th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 27, 2022.