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In telling their own stories, trauma survivors confront their demons in ‘Procession’

A boy dresssed as an altar boy looks into the camera in a scene from the documentary "Procession."
Terrick Trobough helps recreate stories of abuse by priests in the Netflix documentary ‘Procession.’
(Netflix)

Within its first few minutes, “Procession” makes clear that it won’t be a predictable kind of documentary about survivors coping with trauma. Immediately, it does away with the clichés. “I can’t risk that I look like I’m exploiting what happened to me,” says Ed Gavagan, one of the film’s subjects, who is introduced with five other men who agree to revisit their childhood sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Kansas City, Mo. “Cut to the weepy dude … now he’s got a wife and a kid, and he’s holding it together. Golf clap.”

The result of an intense collaborative process, the film, now streaming on Netflix, generates an empathy that can’t easily be set aside. It does so by enlisting its subjects in a risky adventure. Inspired by drama therapy, filmmaker Robert Greene invites the men — Gavagan, Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge and Tom Viviano — to create short films drawing on the abuses they suffered and to take charge of their own narratives. The endeavor is fostered by an attorney, Rebecca Randles, who has investigated more than 400 claims, and is monitored by registered drama therapist Monica Phinney and therapist Sasha Black.

Greene took nothing for granted. “We approached every step of the process as if it could be the last step,” he said, and recalled the meeting that opens the film, when one of the subjects says that he’s “never been in a room with this many survivors of this kind of abuse.” “If that was it, if we recorded just one conversation and never did anything with it, we knew we took a step forward that day.”

From left, Ed Gavagan, Michael Sandridge and Dan Laurine in a scene from the documentary ‘Procession.’
From left, Ed Gavagan, Michael Sandridge and Dan Laurine in a scene from the documentary ‘Procession.’
(Netflix)
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The project was an organic leap from Greene’s previous film. “Bisbee ’17,” which tracks residents of Bisbee, an Arizona border town, as they reenact a tragic episode in the copper mining site’s history on the event’s centennial. Ideas around performance and identity have been central to Greene’s films, whose subjects have included independent professional wrestlers (“Fake It So Real”) and a former “The Wire” cast member reconciling her career with off-screen realities (“Actress”). When the filmmaker’s sister-in-law suggested he read a book called “The Body Keeps the Score,” about trauma, theatrical therapy and “working it out physically,” Greene said, he had a revelation. “This is what I’ve been thinking about forever but I just didn’t realize it.”

The film’s transparent structure relates each man’s story while observing the men as they become a small production company, assisting one another in the creation of a series of vignettes that are referenced through the film. As it happens, some of the men already had handy skill sets. Laurine is a professional locations manager, and Sandridge an interior designer. Gavagan drew his own storyboards.

Viviano, whose case is pending and therefore unable to do his own scene, becomes an actor in others’ stories, including scenes in which he dresses as a priest — a moment of startling role-reversal that is a key to the film’s mission. “You can take the power of the clothes, the power of the symbols, and by embodying those symbols it’s almost the ultimate punk rock move,” Greene said. “To diminish the power of it.”

The dreamlike nature of several scenarios evokes the nature of recovered memories and of real-life childhood horror that haunts grown men decades afterward.

Eldred, whose powerful segment “Letter to Joe” closes the film, also visited the site of his abuse, a vacation house on Lake Viking in northwest Missouri. For years, he had been plagued by nightmares of a green-eyed demon. “I would walk up to that front door, up those steps,” he recalled. “It was supposed to be such a warm and inviting place where the priest would take you … and the darkest dark would envelop you, and the evil tendrils would hold you tight and those green eyes would open up.” After Eldred faced down his fears on camera, the nightmares went away. “They stopped that day.”

Eldred, who compares the experience of collaborating with fellow survivors to sharing a lifeboat set adrift from the Titanic, acknowledges the terror he felt that day, but with no regrets. “Who knows how many boys were taken there and raped there,” he said. “I was the one allowed to go back. If they can see that house and they can slay the nightmares they’re having as well, what an awesome gift that is.”

Michael Sandridge sits alone in a pew in an empty church in a scene from ‘Procession.’
Michael Sandridge helps recreate his story of abuse by a priest in “Procession.”
(Netflix)

This collaborative form is nothing new to documentary, but it has produced some of the most memorable nonfiction films of the last few years, such as “Dick Johnson Is Dead” and “Time.” These are process-driven stories that actively engage, and transfigure, the moment that spawns them.

“So many films are obsessed with the past,” Greene said. “The films I love are very much about the present. Frederick Wiseman’s films are about the present. Chantal Akerman’s films are about the present. But we’ve got to think about the future. I hope when you watch the film you know that we did this thing and now the future will be different — because we did this thing.”


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