"I want this to be like Marvel superheroes vanquishing the fucking forces of darkness," says Ed, one victim of sexual abuse, says in Robert Greene's newest documentary Procession, currently streaming on Netflix. The slide, in which the middle-aged man's face folds in on itself, moving to the brink of tears as he makes an appeal to now-omnipresent, childlike notions of good and evil, proves gutting. Because the problems he's facing and the past he's working through aren't nearly as simple as the fable-like, simplified movies he's fantasizing about. "The hammer of Thor..." he trails off. "That would be great."
Ed, like the five other survivors featured alongside him, is a Kansas City man trying to work through a history of sexual abuse buried deep within his past: abuse perpetrated for some of them by one and for others a succession of multiple Catholic priests, all within the victims' youths. In this postmodern project, Greene brings six men together to write and re-stage — if not exactly re-enact — some key scenes that have accrued the most weight in memory, leaving them wounded for decades. But there's no mystery here as to the identity of the perpetrators, though statutes of limitation, the Church's own bulwarks against accountability, and the vagaries of the justice system have kept those still living at large until the time of filming. This makes the question at hand less about whether the men can achieve some form of payback in the wider world — unfortunately, a reach — than whether they can make any kind of emotional progress for themselves.
The approach chosen is, thankfully, film-friendly; the men are trying something called "drama therapy," which Monica Phinney, the film's resident professional in the space, describes as "the intentional use of theater and role-play towards a therapeutic goal." The idea, she explains, is to allow the work of art-making to provide a contained space in which to confront their experience. Several seem more stuck on the often coercive aftermath of what happened to them than the more obvious flashpoints of plain violation: acts which undermined the trust they had in friends, parishioners, and family, and which shook or even shattered the faith they had in those around them. This renders their communion here in an effort, at least, to help each other through shared struggles, a kind of restorative act for a quite lonely group of men: a little revolt through its construction of a more honest, trusting community.
The freedom of Greene's collaborative project (blessedly, he never editorializes) allows Procession's subjects to write their own scenes to re-stage, turning long-held trauma into a sort of job: a thing they can take a whack at and do. Typically, documentary reenactment tries to concretize something, presuming its viewers' lack of empathy or dramatic imagination while firming up some ostensibly objective version of events. But here, re-staging serves a different end, becoming a long-shot act of group therapy, and an effort to come to some sort of collective resolve. The men, who voice a shared desire to "not look pathetic" while sketching and acting out conferences with church leaders, threatening confrontations, and moments of ritual they discuss before, during, and after, aren't above an emotional baldness that scans as corny in a narrative filmmaking context, but that's very much the point; the aim is to be emotionally honest. At times, they approach the filmmaking — from the planning and the storyboarding to their strikingly precise direction of actors — with a cautious air of relish that feels in its lack of training at least a bit indelicate.
Each character filters their experience, as we all do, through the tools they have on hand. Some cite Star Wars or courtroom dramas, onscreen and in conversation, while others lean on wives and family; one heavily homages Bob Fosse's All That Jazz. They express, too, their artistic and emotional limitations in this. (No one mentions Werner Herzog's Wings of Hope, which had a plane-crash survivor retrace her steps taken in its aftermath, or Kirsten Johnson's Dick Johnson Is Dead, in which she forecast her father's death in morbid sketches.) The scenes the subjects create sway between hard-charging scenes of confrontation and halting moments of questioning, something the film's looping anthology-of-memories structure more than allows. Embracing its relative diversity of emotional experience, Procession gives its subjects (and perhaps some viewers) a permission slip for a range of responses to what's depicted and shared.
This repetitious narrative rhythm of recounting, conceptualization, and production lends the film a crucial ability to revisit moments, memories, and scenes teased out in different ways, granting a fruitful sense of circularity that evokes the process of a mind circling around something that haunts it. At the same time, the process of filming, along with the movement shown of the characters pushing themselves through that same process, roots Greene's work here in a linear narrative track, implying some potential space for resolution to one's traumas. This apparent tension, between the fumbling task of endlessly revisiting, grasping at, and revising one's understanding — and then the more assertive, daunting one of pushing directly through one's greatest fears and traumas as a doggedly attempted project, undergirds the characters' every word and step. As with many a seeming paradox, the way of reconciling these two actions might be to understand that they're not opposed at all: but that takes a certain kind of faith.
And that last sentiment, along with hope, is expressed quite ardently throughout. For a viewer more skeptical and doubting towards acts of ritualized catharsis, this belief in process can be hard to trust: are these people just tricking themselves? Will this really give them any peace, especially after decades of suffering in social and emotional isolation? But in some way this raises the stakes — for while the filmmakers and therapists present make repeated appeals to safety, there's an undeniable psychic risk to the film's subjects in what Procession's doing.
But inaction poses quiet forms of risk itself, and anything might be better than the cast of characters shown here continuing to suffer alone. While Procession probably doesn't nod quite enough to these calculations — or to the question of whether the characters are provided much long-term solace, it deals finely with the struggles for which the camera's immediately present. Rightly treating the precise translation of experience as impossible — a notion rooted in the idea of memory as fallible — it privileges each subject's emotional reality over giving much pretense of investigating the cold facts of each separate case. And with good reason: for these details look almost petty today when compared with the contours of what Greene's subjects feel most matters now: an understanding of emotional and subjective reality which justice systems and so much art are blind to. In sidelining this sort of haughty regard for legalistic or precisely objective forms of truth, Procession sprints ahead of most nonfiction filmmaking — and most journalism, too — by actually contending with what counts.