Movies

Netflix’s Catholic Abuse Doc Offers a New Way to Represent Trauma

Documentaries about abuse are an ethical minefield. Procession charts a new path.

A group of men stand together at the front of a church. Two of them are dressed as Catholic clergy. At the center, a man in a big clerical hat smiles wide.
Netflix

Procession begins where a lesser documentary might end, with a press conference at which three men go public with allegations of sexual abuse inside the Catholic church. But for its subjects, that moment, already decades in the making, is still only a beginning. Although proof that the church systematically enabled and covered up abuse in its ranks has existed for decades, a full reckoning has never been realized. Just this summer, a United Nations report concluded the Vatican still needed to be urged to “refrain from obstructive practices” in investigating past crimes. As angry as the movie’s survivors—there are six subjects in all—are at the priests who abused them, some of their most intense ire is directed at the independent review boards that were meant to mete out justice, and whose failure to do so is another gutting betrayal.

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If these men are to find closure, or even a measure of peace, it is unlikely to come from the Catholic church, which not only violated their trust but effectively exiled them from the community that might have helped them to heal. Many say they haven’t been inside a church since they were children, and even the scent of incense can trigger a flood of traumatic memories. So together with the movie’s director, Robert Greene, they embark on an unusual form of reconciliation called drama therapy, in which they create and stage scenes for each other, and inevitably, for the movie’s cameras as well.

Greene’s documentaries, which include Actress, Kate Plays Christine, and Bisbee ’17, are based in the understanding that life is itself a mode of performance, and that introducing a documentary crew into the equation only heightens that fact. The great documentarian Albert Maysles used to say that people could only keep up a pretense in front of the camera for so long, and that if you stuck around long enough, they would eventually have to revert to being who they really were. But Greene is more focused on what they reveal when they’re asked to be something else. Procession feels like culmination of that project, and the most powerful and organic confluence of his ideas and his subject matter. For the movie’s survivors, the performance isn’t just a means of self-exploration but a matter of survival.

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In some cases, the scenes they invent are straightforward psychodrama, an opportunity to relive the past and intervene at the crucial moment. Mike Foreman, the most viscerally furious of all of the movie’s subjects, revisits his appearance before the church review board, at which he was told that his recently recovered memories of abuse made him an unreliable witness, and says now what he wishes he would have said then. But in many cases the moments they choose to re-enact are less obviously pivotal, and the roles the survivors play in them can be surprising. Often they take on the roles of priests, choosing a single child actor to represent all of their younger selves, reasoning that figure represents the common thread that ties them all together. They don’t play their own abusers—in fact one of them can’t even talk about the specific circumstances of his abuse because of pending legal action—but they choose to embody each other’s worst nightmares out of a sense of compassion, perhaps because it feels safer to have the person who betrayed them portrayed by someone they trust. In one scenario, the child actor spills incense while serving as an altar boy, and the priest glares at him from behind the altar, his eyes glowing a poisonous green, and then everyone in church turns to stare. In another, the priest coaxes a twisted confession out of his victim: “Forgive me, father, for I have failed to do right and succeeded in doing wrong.”

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Although they’re scripted and acted and shot, with cinematographer Robert Kolodny fluidly switching between an observational style and shots that feel more calculated and fiction-like, the scenes don’t often follow conventional dramatic arcs, and they’re not meant to. As the drama therapist Monica Phinney says at the beginning of the movie, the purpose is to remove trauma from its fixed place in the brain and “put it out into the world in a way that makes sense to us”—which is to say that their only intended audience is the other survivors in the room. Procession gives them greater resources than they would have had on their own, but it allows the scenes to keep their sometimes stubbornly un-narrative shape. Even with decades of distance, their road to recovery has been anything but straight, and the movie avoids leaving us with the feeling that their situations have been in any way resolved, although the process does seem to have put them on a better path.

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Even in some excellent documentaries about abuse, there’s an inevitable focus on returning to the scene of the crime, as the survivors recount precisely what happened to them in devastating detail. But Procession and its subjects are after something different. The camera never pins them down and has them recite their traumas into the lens. When they do talk about it, it’s as if we’re sitting by their side rather than across from them—more like a friend, less like an interrogator. The crime scenes themselves are often inaccessible—not surprisingly, the Catholic churches in question did not allow the production access, and when Foreman tries to stage a one-man protest outside one parish, he’s escorted away by the police. Dan Laurine tries to find the lakeside cottage where he says his abuser coerced him into sex as punishment for breaking a fishing rod, and he winds up in an overgrown vacant lot, unsure if the terrain has changed or his memories have. It’s striking that like Laurine, who now works as a location scout for film productions, several of the other survivors have ended up in careers dedicated to exerting control over spaces: Michael Sandridge is an interior designer; Ed Gavagan is a building contractor; Foreman refinishes decks. On some level it feels as if they’ve sought out professions where they can provide others the harmony they were denied. After gazing through the windows of the home where he was abused, long since passed to owners unaffiliated with the church, Joe Eldred says, “I want this to be a happy place.”

At several points during Procession, Gavagan fantasizes about making his scene like something out of Marvel, with the Avengers converging on a “shattered city” to “vanquish the forces of darkness.” But the scene he eventually devises owes more to 2001: A Space Odyssey than the Infinity Saga, both more transformative and less definitive. The forces of darkness aren’t vanquished, because that only happens in the movies, but in working with and understanding one another, the survivors have created a force just as powerful.

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