The director discusses the complex ethics of his new documentary, Procession, which gives a voice to survivors of sexual abuse.
In a filmography of lofty formal experiments finding truth through artifice, Robert Greene’s new film Procession – in which survivors of abuse in the Catholic Church face their demons by creating short films stylising their experiences – is his most direct, empathetic work yet. For the first time in his career, he’s using his nonfiction theory acumen to benefit real, live, present people.
LWLies: How do you broach such a sensitive topic when first setting up a film like this?
Greene: Step one was doing everything through [lawyer] Rebecca [Randles]. We had months and months of conversations before we were even in front of the guys. We came to her with a very early version of the film’s idea, which was originally to do drama therapy on camera. I sort of told that to Rebecca, and pitched it to a roomful of drama therapists, who had gathered for the North American Drama Therapy Association’s convention in Kansas City, a coincidence of pure serendipity. I explained this idea, and they all said, ‘You can’t do that, this can’t be done on camera. It’s therapy!’ So we had to learn the difference between therapy and therapeutic, a really helpful distinction. Therapy has a specific goal to get to, and it takes its own form. So in that first meeting, the point was ‘should we even do this?’ as much as it was ‘what are we going to do?’
As far as the initial reaction from the guys was to wonder what I wanted from them, you can see that in the movie. They’re incredibly aware of how they don’t want to be perceived. No one wants to be a sob story. That feeling was palpable and amazing, because in a way, this was an indictment of how the media portrays survivors. When you talk to someone as a documentary filmmaker to quote-unquote tell their story, they’ll let you know what they don’t want to see, a lot of which comes from documentaries they’ve seen. This gives you guidance, and more importantly, it gives them agency. I told them, straight up, ‘One way we avoid this portrayal is including this conversation, right now, in the film.’
How does bringing in the elements of cinema change the mechanics of drama therapy?
Drama therapy is the backbone of the film, but we’re not technically doing drama therapy. I believe that art, making something together, can be therapeutic. In a Q&A recently, Michael said something about how it might seem like we went through this in such an intense way, but there are a lot of stops and starts when you’re making a movie. It’s all bits and pieces. That incremental idea, that we can go into a church and slowly turn it into a set, that’s one way to get power back. Drama therapy is not always about giving power back, more about going into yourself to understand how trauma plays out in your body and mind everyday. It’s the roleplaying of a narrative, whereas this is constructing something that has a product at the end of the road. The product is not the point of drama therapy, which focuses more on the experience.
The editing of this film, and the playing it back to the guys, that could be the most important part of this whole process. Confronting these dark spaces, using symbols of the Church to expose the Church – these are important in the moment. It’s hard, but we all knew we were making something to be edited and presented. This can show Dan that he’s a hero, show Michael that he’s creative, show Joe where he’s been and how he got here, show Mike he’s capable of change, show Tom that he can be integral to this process, show Ed that he really exerted his voice. You can look at it, and accept that hey, I did that. Disassociation, being separated from the boy inside you, that’s one of the biggest issues. Seeing yourself on the screen, outside yourself, brings you a new sort of consciousness.
With the focus on full-disclosure transparency, is there any part of this process we’re not seeing?
There could be a six-hour cut of this film. There was, actually, and every moment was charged. There are legal journeys I would’ve liked to include, emotional pathways, some returns to sites of abuse – those were really painful to cut out. These might be the hardest conversations, when they’ve given something important that we can’t use. But everyone understands that the goal is for this to be useful for other people. Ed, for instance: after the church bell ringing scene, we went to a rural mountain area where he was taken and photographed. Going back to that rock, standing there, saying, ‘I don’t have to go back to this place again,’ that was a breakthrough. Even so, Ed recognised that the church bell footage was kind of diminished by the rock afterward.
You want to give everything the space it requires. That would be a minimum eight-minute scene or it doesn’t work. There were moments when people were triggered, and we had to figure out how much they wanted to lean into that. Joe says on camera, and this was in the cut to the very end, he says, ‘I went from “why me?” to “why am I the one who gets to go back and conquer these demons?” I can see that other people deserve their Lake Viking moment, and maybe vicariously through me, they can kind of get it.’ That was a powerful sentiment, but we ultimately decided that we didn’t need it. In other cases, it was a matter of taking out what felt too safe. If it’s too safe, we’re not honouring the risks that have been taken here.
Has there been a response from the Church?
They’ve announced that they’re going to continue the ‘healing services’ model. They’re mostly still desperate to see the film, though we had some representatives in for the premiere in Kansas City. So, my one hope is that the response will put the focus on helping the survivors. Frankly, that may be helpful to some people and make others roll their eyes. I was happy with the response at first, but the guys were quick to point out that this is bullshit, standard procedure. I was a little more hopeful about what they identified as double talk.
Where can your methods go from here? Your filmmaking technique, which revolves around building of artifice, what application could it have after this?
Honestly, I don’t know, though I didn’t know after Bisbee or Kate Plays Christine, either. Kate was an effort to burn everything down, Bisbee was trying to raise it back up, so I have no idea where to go next. As for mental health grounds, for me, Michael has been really good about checking in and making sure I’m taking care of myself. I’ve started therapy for the first time in my life. It’s great, should’ve done that 20 years ago, would have made thousands fewer mistakes. I feel like I’m at the end of something, which sometimes signals a new beginning, but is sometimes just an end. I gotta figure out what kind of person I am now.
Procession is one in a handful of films made over the past five years that seek to illustrate how much a documentary can do: Dick Johnson Is Dead; All Light, Everywhere; and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets being in this vein. Do you ever think about this as a cohesive scene?
It’s just a combination of recognition of what nonfiction really is – everything from Flaherty to Herzog to Greaves to Yance Ford – with greater ease of making a movie. You can pull the pieces together more readily than you used to. There is a real conversation that’s taken place over the last 10 years, I’d say, that focuses on expanding the way we talk about documentary. We’ve responded by making increasingly provocative work, hopefully taking people to new places. That’s the history of documentary: people struggling, failing, and trying again to tell the truth. Each new attempt builds on the last. It’s a history of attempts, from the direct cinema people thinking they’d figured it out, to the generation building on the methods and philosophies, where we’ve got the Maysles making Mick Jagger watch himself. Then they make Grey Gardens, Herzog makes Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and it’s all advancing an ongoing conversation.
There’s a great piece called ‘The Reality-Based Community’ from 2017, and [the author, Erika Balsom] wrote a scathing review of Kate Plays Christine, where she basically said that with Trump and Brexit and everything, why do we need to watch this movie? That really affected me. Why watch movies that question reality? We need to take care of reality, of belief and action. In a way, my work since then has been a response to that. ‘You know what? You’re right. We need to do something different.’
This being your first movie released by a major studio, have you been able to see the inner workings of how documentaries are sold and promoted in a way you hadn’t before?
I’ve never been a part of a system like this. The other day, I was talking about awards stuff with the awards team, and their response to my apprehensions was, ‘Hey, think about how many more people you’ll be able to help by getting this out there.’ That’s the most human response to what can turn out to be a very cynical thing. To me, the awards stuff is a little ridiculous, but I know it’ll help in a practical way. Most importantly, I didn’t have to compromise any of the filmmaking, I didn’t prep a new edit after the acquisition. I wouldn’t! I could just as easily go back to making films with no support, or not making films at all. This just felt like the right time for this movie. Finding a real audience for this one has been amazing, because I genuinely believe it has the potential to help the people who watch it.
Procession is out now on Netflix.
Published 19 Nov 2021
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