Rating *** A must-see
Directed by Robert Greene
Full disclosure: I am a friendly acquaintance of Robert Greene.
Over the course of about a decade, Robert Greene has cultivated one of the more nervy and bold oeuvres in American documentary filmmaking. Since Actress (2014), a portrait of actress Brandy Burre that openly embraced the fuzzy lines between common and quotidian notions of performance, his work has proceeded within fascinating, deliberately uncertain areas. Kate Plays Christine (2016) enlisted Kate Lyn Sheil to play Christine Chubbuck, who died by her own hand on live television, in a fictional film-within-the-film, in the process capturing all the simmering tensions and misgivings about such an endeavor. Such issues of filmic representation were rendered on a much larger scale in 2018’s Bisbee ’17, tackling the implications and ideologies of an entire city on the anniversary of the infamous Bisbee deportation.
Now, with Procession, Greene has created something like a hybrid of a hybrid, in both scale and filming style. The documentary’s concerns are certainly of a national, even international nature: child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, as reflected by the traumas of six middle-aged men in the Kansas City area, and there’s a concrete nature to Greene’s reportage that hasn’t been present in his past work: chyrons and intertitles are used at key junctures throughout, and there’s a topicality that dredges up history in a much more overtly sensitive area than the slightly buried stories in his past works. But this also becomes perhaps even more intimate than its predecessors, in no small part because of the conceit: Procession is pointedly credited as “a film by” the six men at its core — Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, and Tom Viviano — and follows a form of drama therapy that took place from 2018 to 2020, in which the men would write and direct short films that represented their own experiences of abuse as a way to come to terms with the horrors that continue to haunt them.
These scenes, interspersed through Procession and arriving with greater frequency towards the close, effectively act as the means for these closed-off men, who appear to have never met before their first meeting, to both draw closer to those who have suffered similar experiences and to open up, to literally externalize their nightmares. But they do not form the bulk of the film, and largely for the better, as Greene spends a purposeful amount of time with each man, often placing two or three of them in conversation on specific missions, often involving journeys to the sites where the abuse happened. Laurine, who previously served as a location scout and set worker on films and commercials in the Kansas City area, often facilitates these trips, which provide substantial amounts of catharsis and relief.
Such catharsis, as Greene recognizes, doesn’t necessarily mean definite, lasting change, much less justice under the eyes of man, not even the Pope. An undercurrent of rage and despair — especially in the time given to Foreman, embittered from the partiality shown by purportedly independent review boards — runs through the film, and the information doled out about each man remains, understandably given the size of the cast, as minimal as possible: Eldred’s prosthetic limb is pointedly unremarked upon, no questions of sexuality are raised, and domestic situations or predilections — like Foreman’s nightly ritual of blasting The Who and rocking back and forth on his couch to drown out his thoughts — arise without warning. Part of the way through, Viviano reveals that he has deliberately abstained from making a scene of his own: though he acts as the pedophile in a number of the sequences, his level of comfort has not arisen to being able to even explain his experiences. While he is able to provide in his own way, helping to realize these other men’s visions, he has only a limited recourse.
Similar transferences of reckoning take place throughout Procession, in no small part because of the casting of the men in various roles of abusers and enablers throughout the shorts. Gavagan, who explicitly references the opening of All That Jazz in his segment, notes that he cast Sandridge as the priest because they had similar experiences of abuse; Laurine mentions that in scouting for the lake house that Eldred was raped in, he was able to put aside his own lake house traumas. But the effects of recognition are never far away, largely because this sort of endeavor forces this sort of confrontation (with reasonable barriers): Eldred, who was able to walk upon the steps of the house that haunted his nightmares for decades, begins shaking uncontrollably while watching a scene that he wrote; Laurine, in searching for his own house of horror with his brother, explicitly denies that he has found the site despite all evidence to the contrary. At the same time, these moments are counterbalanced by moments of joy, even levity — Gavagan swings on the church bells that used to hold him aloft as a young boy, and in general the relations between the men remain remarkably intimate and accepting.
And it is in the short films, and in their striking presentation, that Greene finds his most delicate balance, embodied in the young actor Terrick Trobough, who plays each of the men as a young boy in the shorts. He is cast by the men in a deliberate gesture to show the universality of their experiences, the shared damage that has been done to them, and in the process he acts as a kind of projection: at least a few of the men say that talking about their experiences makes them feel like an adolescent again, and in Foreman’s segment — a particularly forthright scene in a studio space that allows him to say what he was unable to say to the independent review board, complete with shadowy lighting and a constantly dollying camera — and in Eldred’s second scene — a reading of a letter he wrote to his younger self, which closes the film — the men appear alongside him, a particularly pointed illustration of the harsh, lingering effects of institutional exploitation and blindness. Trobough’s resilience and general amiability act as something of a light in what could be a suffocating darkness, a hope for the future. Procession thus emerges as a new kind of dedication, as a space for expression and exploration that refuses to shy away from the mixed, often bruising emotions that result from excavations of the past, at once both universal and specific in the most salient of ways.