To vanquish lived trauma, Netflix’s ‘Procession’ puts victims in the director’s chair

Washington Post

November 23, 2021

By Jillian Cheney

Robert Greene is expert at weaving memory and reality. The director of “Procession,” a new Netflix documentary about survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, Greene never allows the men’s re-creations of their trauma to go too long before he disrupts the narrative.

Crews redo sets. The survivors take a break to process details from their experience. We are reminded that what we are watching is actually the making of five short films written, directed and performed by the men themselves.

It’s the intersections between Greene’s film and the acts of healing reenactment that the men are making that is so heartbreaking. We see the link between remembering and overcoming their trauma. Churches — the spaces where they were broken —  become mere work sites, film sets. 

“If you’re taking a step back, and you’re looking at the lights and microphones, and you’re seeing all of these staff members wandering around, it provides this layer of distance that says, ‘Oh, this isn’t real,’” said Monica Phinney, a licensed drama therapist and owner of Heartwork Studio in Kansas City, Missouri, who was on set as a consultant for the filming of “Procession.”

With Phinney’s help, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Joe Eldred, Michael Sandridge and Tom Viviano tell their stories through documentary and dramatic retellings, using methods common in drama therapy, a healing practice that uses projection and role-playing to work through past trauma. 

In drama therapy, “instead of asking people, ‘How are you doing today?’ there’s usually something more creative,” Phinney said. It’s not always anything so complicated as a short film. “I like to put out a lot of different postcards that have different images on them, and I can pick one up that seems like the way that they’re feeling today.”

The process often then goes on to entail a few warmup activities and then fuller reenactments. “Taking on roles — either from your life or that parallel your life in some ways — can really give you new insights,” said Phinney, “perhaps change the end or middle to things that have happened in the past, explore alternate endings, and sort of rehearse things for real life to practice behaviors that you would like to see.”

“Procession” steps outside of drama therapy’s usual methods. The true healing of drama therapy is often the process, rather than a finished dramatic product. The men’s films — and “Procession” itself — emphasized the resulting work, rather than the process. 

But there’s plenty of process shown in the documentary. While revisiting past trauma and writing their scripts, the men form intense familial bonds with one another as they help each other’s healing and growth. Many share nearly identical abuse stories, some even abused by the same priest. It’s a beautiful and gutting thing to watch these men realize they aren’t alone. 

Their healing contains plenty of dread and anger too. One hired actor played the role of the young victim in a few of the short films, while the men acted out other roles — some even played priests. These more difficult roles offered a chance to reclaim power for themselves again. 

“One of them asked me the first day, ‘Would drama therapy have me put on priests’ garb and pretend to be a priest?’” Phinney said. “And I said, ‘No, drama therapy would ask you, is that helpful or harmful?’ Drama therapy would ask the question and want you to decide what perspective you need to get.”

The most important achievement of the movie is that it gives an account of the abuse, almost completely without bombarding the viewer with an abundance of impersonal facts and data.

Overall, it ends in hope: if not in hope that justice will be done, in the mere hope that healing is possible.

“This is what mental health looks like,” Phinney said, “and this is what men’s mental health looks like. And this is what it’s like to work through trauma.”