“Seen But Not Heard”

Kathryn Lofton (Yale University)

Procession begins with footage from a 2018 press conference in which three white male survivors speak frankly about their experiences of sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests. “I’m now 62 years old,” one says, beginning to cry, “and I still live with the pain of what happened to me when I was in grade school.” Rebecca Randles, the lawyer for these Kansas City, Kansas survivors, instigated the 2018 press conference after reading the Philadelphia Grand Jury report that documented more than 300 “predator priests” credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 child victims. Viewers of Procession may want to pause and engage this breakdown of that 2018 report provided by an organization that has assembled the largest public library of information on the Catholic clergy abuse crisis. Reviewing this material is harrowing. In one passage, Grand Jury testimony reports that “Ruth testified that Fr. Cudemo began raping her when she was 11 years old.” After raping her, Father Cudemo would hear her confession, explaining that the only way for her to connect with God was through him. Ruth told the Grand Jury that Fr. Cudemo would often insert a Host, the Eucharist, into her vagina and tell her she had “fucked God” or “fucked Jesus.” He told her she was a “walking desecration,” that she was “unworthy of God’s love.”

Procession is a documentary about adults who cannot heal from what happened to them as children, who still throw up on Sunday mornings and wish they could be released from that anguish. “We’re all mentally broken people,” one observes. In Procession, director Robert Greene organizes an opportunity for six survivors to undergo drama therapy as a means of helping work through this trauma; he then films their process. Dan, Ed, Joe, Michael, Mike, and Tom—the men whose reenactments focus Procession—would recognize the conjunction of sacrament and abuse Ruth experienced. “It’s incredibly upsetting to me that they use these rituals and symbols that are supposed to be helpful in bringing you closer to God just to hurt you,” one observes. “From the minute you’re baptized, that power starts.”

Throughout the film, the Church is a brutal specter but is socially invisible; the film introduces no priests, nor speaks to anyone with an ongoing relationship to the Church. This is not an unusual choice in secular documentaries addressing religion. Procession joins a flurry of nonfiction films transfixed by religious abuse, including The Keepers (2017), Wild Wild Country (2018), and The Family (2019). In her thoughtful review of Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed (2022), Jessica Johnson observes what might also be said of Procession, namely that it admirably attempts to demonstrate the human toll of institutionally-sanctioned violence, yet “viewers are given little insight into how the church’s organization and theology resulted in systemic emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse wrought by leadership.” As I have written about elsewhere, religion in documentary film is rarely a site of complexity or ingenuity. Rather, documentaries about religion tend to derive their entertaining power from spectacularizing the religious. Spectacularizing is how the films show some aspect of how religion brainwashes its followers, or how invariably self-contradictory religious belief is, or how proximate piety is to mental illness or sexual sublimation. Procession is another entry in a long documentary history of staging religion to aestheticize its strangeness, its awfulness, for secular entertainment.

To observe that Procession has a genre familiarity is not to dismiss what it conveys well about the need for rehabilitation that facilitates structured vengeance. Of special note are the many casual scenes of intimate conferral and therapeutic interaction between survivors. Rarely does one see onscreen such substantive support between adult, male-identified persons outside of militarism and sport. The tenderness with which the six men handle each other’s reckoning remains for this viewer one of the most compelling features of this filmed experiment in theatrical healing.

Yet these scenes of sodality do not add up to an especially perceptive account of the sex abuse crisis. Viewers never learn why some survivors have a harder time wrestling with their experiences than others, nor why these survivors’ families often stayed tied to the Church. Offering neither a robust account of religion nor trauma, Procession is instead a series of reenactments in which adult men can confront the hardest moment of their childhood. Robert Orsi, a leading scholar of American Catholicism, began a 2002 essay in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin on Roman Catholic sex abuse by observing that the crisis of sex abuse in the Catholic church is “fundamentally about children. It is about children’s vulnerability to adult power and to adult fantasy in religious contexts and it is about the absence of real children in these settings—real children as opposed to ‘children’ as the projections of adult needs and desires or “children” as extensions of adult religious interiority. The necessary response to the crisis must be about children too.”

In Procession, children appear as figures of memory – for adult men who cannot recover from their experiences as children – and as actors, cast by the film crew to serve as stand-ins for these child victims. In one scene, a child actor wordlessly stands, holding a chocolate cake, while the adult he plays yells at a staging of a church review board. “I was sexually assaulted twice by a grown man when I was 11 years old,” Mike yells. After the filming, Mike turns to the child: “I tip my hat to you. This is a horrible subject and I’m sure your parents helped you with all of this. So, you’re going to be good, right?”

These child actors allow adult survivors to visualize the youth desecrated by priestly abuse. But what do we know of what these children think of what they witness? As Robert Orsi wagers, it is adult fantasies about children—that they are available for our projections, are strong in their innocence and exist as counterpoint to adult brokenness—that contributed to the Roman Catholic sex abuse crisis becoming so outsized. There is no violent tragedy in the making of Procession, only the sense that children are, in the most everyday way, understood as scrim for adult lives.

“Caring Through Documentary”

Suzanne Little (University of Otago)

In 2016, filmmaker Robert Greene argued “[d]ocumentary is not a genre, but a way of seeing.” With Procession, Greene is proposing that documentary can also be a way of caring. His work raises important questions for the field about the ethical and political potentials of documentary.

Procession is the result of a three-year collaboration between Greene, his crew, six survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic priesthood, and a drama therapist. At the center of Procession is the detailing of a drama therapy activity wherein five of the abuse victims write, direct, role-play, and film “scenes” that work to recover and express their traumatic experiences in a manageable symbolic form. The premise is that, in this externalized form, their trauma can then be integrated and resolved. The drama therapist coaches the men and oversees the creation process while the filmmakers facilitate the filming of the scenes, which are then edited and appear as part of this Netflix film.

A middle-aged man sits at a craft services table with a female drama therapist while two men set up lights on set in the background
Mike talks with the drama therapist on set

This is a radical departure from normal drama therapy practice, where such enactments would be live and confidential, occuring behind closed doors. Procession marks the first time Greene has worked with a drama therapist, a choice inspired by a Q&A about Greene’s earlier film Bisbee ‘17 in which he was asked why he had not employed a therapist given its traumatic focus. Beyond redressing this omission, Greene explained, involving a therapist was part of an attempt to find out whether it was possible to “take documentary filmmaking and not just depict something but actually help the people that are on screen and maybe even help ourselves making it.” Documentary makers often care deeply about their subjects. But in Procession, the filmmakers move beyond “caring about” their subjects and into the role of “caring for” their subjects. In facilitating the filming of the scenes and travel to places of original trauma, they move past documentation and into intervention. What emerges is an often profoundly illuminating and affecting experimental hybrid of drama therapy and documentary, which appears to help most of the men in working through their trauma.

The desire to perform care through the arts is not new and exists on something of a spectrum. For example, in theatre, the drama therapist would be on one end, using embodied theatre exercises that mirror the patient’s experiences to provide confidential psychological care. Then there are practitioners who work within Applied Theatre (a term for a wide variety of forms such as Process Drama, Theatre in Education, Theatre in Health, etc.) to promote social change, foster new perspectives, workshop conflict resolution, overcome oppression, and so on. Significantly, these are strictly participant-focused forms, not made for paying audiences nor aimed at entertainment. Practitioners in documentary theatre and other Theatre of the Real (see Carol Martin) forms arguably work at the other end of the spectrum. In such productions, there is usually sincere concern for the subjects, often refugees or trauma or violence survivors, who may be invited to appear on stage to “tell their stories” to an audience. This type of theatre trades on its veracity. However, as Caroline Wake has demonstrated, since the 1990s, concerns have been raised regarding its propensity to retraumatize, exploit, double-silence (through editing of testimony), and re-cast its subjects as victims. To address such charges, practitioners have attempted to configure audiences as “witnesses” to trauma testimony, thereby theoretically serving survivors by giving their testimony semantic authority (in a similar manner to a courtroom) and ensuring it is carried forward into the future (as I have argued elsewhere). Nevertheless, as Silvija Jestrovic points out, the commercial and formal/aesthetic demands of these shows mean that even if survivors are placed on stage to have their stories witnessed, they must still fulfil the “primary function of the event,” which is to make theatre.

Procession similarly attempts to heal while also fulfilling commercial and aesthetic functions. It is a largely successful experiment but also includes moments where the approach seems to fail, for example, when two abused brothers travel to the purported location of their original abuse only for one then to deny its authenticity. The brothers become distressed by the lack of closure. This is followed by a meeting with other members of the project, including the off-screen filmmakers, where the abused men voice concerns that the process may be making things worse. Such scenes remind the viewer that the therapist is not present to safeguard every event in the film, underlining the precarity of the enterprise. Only five of the men have their testimony witnessed and create filmed trauma scenes. The sixth cannot do this due to the status of his legal case. Instead, he volunteers to play the abusive priest and other roles in other men’s scenes – at some emotional cost. Greene apparently made it clear that anyone could leave the project at any time and gave creative power over the survivor-created trauma scenes to the men.

Despite the collaborative nature of the film, however, there is a seeming lack of transparency in that the filmmakers are not heard, so it is difficult to determine the nature and extent of their influence and roles. Procession undoubtedly makes a highly significant contribution, not least in its ability to provide deep insights into abuse and trauma. The shift here from simply “caring about” to also “caring for” is positive but it comes with significant risks, particularly for vulnerable subjects. Careful consideration will be needed for any future forays into this hybridized form.

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