The purpose of a religious community – not just religion itself, but the group that practices it – is quite simple, regardless of the actual tenets of belief. Broken people come together and together they perform rituals. They remind each other of what they believe to be true. They just become a little bit more whole, regain just a little bit of power that the trauma of life takes away. And then they go back to the world; a healthy religious community exists to bring grace to those who are not part of the group.
How rare to see this in action. Too often, in religious communities, rituals withhold healing rather than offering it. Those with power grab more of it rather than giving it away. Claims to perfect truth are bent to serve lies. People are hurt unimaginably.
There is no shortage of examples, but the one who structures Procession, Robert Greene’s extraordinary new documentary, is the deep and devastating toll of the thousands of children sexually assaulted by predatory Roman Catholic priests. The pure, amazing magnitude of this abuse, when you read it in the news or think about it for a moment, can just turn your brain off.
This, you can only think, that’s what evil looks like.
Cinema has touched on the subject before, perhaps most memorable in the film that won Best Picture in 2015. Projector, but never like that. In the midst of all this darkness, Procession finds a small still light. This is not a documentary “on” the abuse scandal; it is not an exposition or investigative journalism. It is a collaboration made with six men who work together to find the truth and the healing that the church should have offered them. They venture down a frightening path: reintegrating their trauma to help themselves, each other, and a bigger world. As the title suggests, Procession talks about the messy, roundabout healing process and what it feels like to form a new kind of community out of this mess.
It started a few years ago, in August 2018, when lawyer Rebecca Randles held a press conference in Kansas City with a few men who accused local Catholic priests of sexually assaulting them while they were boys. . Greene contacted Randles, asking if there might be any interest among the group in collaborating on a movie. The goal: to work on their trauma through scripted scenes that they would write themselves. To relive those memories, but this time in the driver’s seat.
It was a crazy idea, but it makes perfect sense in the context of Greene’s work. One of America’s most innovative filmmakers, over the years he has consistently pushed the boundaries of what we expect from “documentaries,” in ways that tend to surprise even the jaded. It focuses on the laser to make us fully aware, in our seats, of what we are actually doing when we do and watch a movie – how performance can be more real than “reality”. It offers us new ways of thinking about how we perform in communities and around each other.
Actress (2014), for example, explored the performance of identity in societal roles by following an actress who has been a full-time parent for years as she plans to re-enter the company and who she is. really. In a similar territory, Kate plays Christine (2016) focuses on actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares, of sorts, to play Christine Chubbuck, a Florida news anchor who committed suicide on the air in the 1970s . And Bisbee ’17 (2018) follows a southwestern city with buried trauma as its residents struggle to piece together centuries-old events. The movie I thought about the most while watching Procession was Greene’s Pretend so real (2012), produced almost ten years ago, which focuses on a group of independent professional wrestlers as they find community and shape their identities in and out of the ring.
Performance permeates our lives, from the way we behave on social media to the way we behave in our most intimate relationships. It is also a key element of religious practice. In Catholic worship, everyone has a role to play and a scenario to follow, from the seated parishioners to the choir, including the readers. At the head of the whole, in the center, is the priest, who largely fulfills the role of “father” there.
This is what makes the abuses on the part of the priests so particularly glaring – for the parish, they replace God, and therefore it is God who has harmed you. Moreover, you are not only a victim of spiritual abuse; your body is injured which in turn harms your mind. It is an offense to the whole being. So for men like participants in Procession, it makes sense that re-entering a dramatic space like the one many of them occupied as altar boys, and playing a new script that they wrote while playing the roles they designed, could be a step towards the rupture of the old power.
Six men eventually joined the project: Tom Viviano, Joe Eldred, Ed Gavagan, Michael Sandridge, Dan Laurine and Mike Foreman. All were assaulted when they were children. Some were still devout; most were not. Each has faced in their own way their unspeakable trauma and, for some, the reluctance of church authorities to recognize or remedy what happened. All approached Greene’s project with a degree of skepticism and a willingness to try it out.
And Procession recounts their experiences. Greene stays on the sidelines most of the time, but doesn’t really know what’s going to happen, and sometimes the process is a stumble. The scenes that every man writes and directs (with a young actor often acting as himself) are powerful to watch, but you realize, as you watch, that it is the community that they form in the process as much as the act itself which is the Medicine.
This community has all the characteristics of a healthy religious community, even if it is not technically religious. The men, the crew and their therapist on the set perform rituals together; they care about each other; they verify each other, work with each other and walk side by side as memories and anger surface. And they often explain why they do it: not just for themselves, but so that other people can be helped as well.
I’m not Catholic, but some of my family are, and I attend a church with a similar style of worship, a church where you go through a script every week. Having been raised in an evangelical context, I am very aware of the scandals of sexual abuse and assault perpetrated by religious leaders whom people seek guidance, wisdom and moral clarity.
Watching Procession, I was, of course, disgusted. Pain like this is hard to watch. But I also thought a lot about what that would look like – what that Is look like – for people to form that kind of community with each other. What I understood is that Procession is this portrait, a lush and lovingly nurtured shot in the process of making the film. It is a non-fiction film, and thus captures the many pauses, gasps, laughter, jokes, hugs, tears and moments of stillness around the edges of this community.
And, because it’s not fiction, it asks us to be part of it. I met Tom and Joe and Ed and Michael and Dan and Mike at a screening of the movie, but even though I hadn’t, I know they’re real, that they exist somewhere in the world, breathing the same air as me, living at the same time. Procession reminds me that the world is full of people who have had the same experiences – probably people I interact with every day.
Now, having been called to literally hear their testimony and experiences, as I would in a church, I have become a witness. I can’t turn away or pretend the statistics are faceless, even if I want to. I know too well that’s exactly what happened to them in a church that was supposed to be a spiritual home; the people who should have protected them made them prey.
By letting them tell these stories their own way and asking us to watch, Procession dares his audience not to look away. It calls us, in other words, to join the healing community, not only with vague aspirations, but with our real eyes. Acting out our roles as members of the audience, then taking what we learn and bringing it to others.
None of this is very easy. But if the evil does not dissipate until the light hits it, then the first step is to let the light in.
Procession open in limited theaters on November 12 and premieres on netflix November 19.