It Needs To Exist In The World: Robert Greene Discusses "Procession"

The American director delves into his latest boundary-pushing documentary, made in creative collaboration with survivors of sexual abuse.
Jay Kuehner

Robert Greene Procession

The sexual abuse of children perpetrated by members of the Catholic clergy is paradoxically the stuff of compulsively watchable drama or, alternately, abject silence. It is toward this seemingly intractable crisis of representation that filmmaker Robert Greene has purposed his reflexive cinematic style into a form of collective amelioration with Procession. Working in direct collaboration with six adult male survivors of abuse and the guidance of a professional drama therapist, Greene recruits their self-selected stories as the basis for staged scenes in which the survivors become agents of their own traumatic narratives. Enacting their personal histories for screen, these men hope to oversee memories too painful to forget (or to remember), conjured now not solely as victims but rather as autonomous auteurs. Fellow survivors, along with Greene’s crew, are enlisted in the actualization of these episodic dramas that are imbricated with the documentary. As such, the basic creation of their fictionalized mise en scène becomes vested with disarming emotional weight.

The co-creative endeavor reveals the capacities to which both cinema and therapy can entail healing processes that reciprocally inform each other. Spectatorship too becomes integral to the collective experience, as the audience acts as participant witness to an experiment that is at once emotionally intensive and jocularly vulnerable. The film contains multitudes—namely, the survivors’ resultant short films and the makings-of, each vastly divergent in tone and style, all underpinned by a common dread. By virtually reconstructing, engaging with, and potentially overcoming their darkest memories, the survivors embody an element of risk-in-filmmaking that tests even Greene’s own rather expansive methodology.

I spoke with Greene at the film’s world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, where the cast’s interface with the festival-going public added another uncanny dimension to the ever-refracting essence of Greene’s beguiling cinematic project. Interview soon turned into conversation, in keeping with the candid nature of the film.

NOTEBOOK: It seems that one of the primary effects of trauma is the inability to articulate grief in any way. The sense the film gives is of an accelerated process, that this articulation came together rather quickly for the subjects. But it has really been a lifetime of work for them, no?

ROBERT GREENE: In many ways it was building and culminated in us showing up. The film was ‘cast’ by Rebecca Randles, the lawyer who has worked with these men in various capacities for many years, so they’ve known each other historically. We first approached Rebecca, and said we’d like to do this project, and asked for her thoughts. And it developed from that point forward. But she was the one who put these people in the room. It was based on many factors, but it was primarily the press conference by three survivors that struck me so much, which you see at the beginning of the film. Rebecca reached out to others who were possibly interested in participating, and we effectively relied on a lifetime of relationships that Rebecca had established with these men. My impression was that they all knew each other more than they did, given that they were legally involved in lawsuits together, but actually they had been kept separate. This is in the church’s interest, to keep them isolated, and even too for the legal system. Keep them quiet and apart.

The first stage of healing—the quote-unquote “art therapy” aspect, which I say because it’s quite complex—was getting these guys in the room together. And Ed Gavagan, the contractor from New York, says it at the beginning of the film: he’s never been in a room with this many other survivors. Just being in the space alone was such an act of defiance against being silent, right away. From that point forward we could really start being creative, going on and building the context for the film.

NOTEBOOK: So at this point you were aware that a film was possible, in spite of the difficult subject matter at hand?

GREEN: I think this is my seventh documentary feature, and I have total confidence in and support from my incredible team. From my producers to the technical crew—Robert Kolodny shooting, Dan Bowersox recording sound, and Keegan DeWitt agreeing to do the music. But even with a strong conceptual and practical foundation we had no prescription as to where this would go. We had Monica Phinney, the drama therapist, there with us, and were open to the experience; let’s see what we can create together. I always think there is a moment—and I tell my students this [at the University of Missouri, School of Journalism, where Green teaches]—when you’re filming a documentary and something unique happens, and you owe that footage an entire film. It needs to exist in the world. And that happened in our very first meeting, when Ed says “I want this to be like The Avengers, hammer of Thor, getting rid of the darkness”, it’s an unprecedented moment. From having never been in a room with as many survivors to imagining his own dreamed scenario, in the space of a two-hour group meeting, that’s incredible. It’s when I knew we were moving forward, that we had to.

NOTEBOOK: The level of candor is almost shocking for the viewer, it establishes an intimacy.

GREEN: It didn’t start out that way. It wasn’t immediate. But what I’ve learned about survivors of this kind of abuse is that they have an intuitive sense, a kind of mutual recognition. Certain mannerisms, the inability to trust other people, it’s a particular way of communicating. At first, getting together, everyone is completely guarded, as you’d expect. Then they start talking, and they can’t believe that, even though they all have different stories, it is the same story. It’s both humbling and illuminating, the shared trauma, and it creates a strong connection. The candor you speak of, well, I joked with everyone that every single thing we shot could be in the film, everything. Most films you shoot scenes and think, that didn’t go anywhere. But we could have made a twelve hour film because everything they talked about, every time they got together, it was so direct, and it was inspiring to see them processing on such an intimate level. They were leading us. They recognized the camera was there, and that they were in each other’s presence, and these components became very powerful.

NOTEBOOK: Can you elaborate how this approach worked in a conceptual capacity? You’ve developed a style, call it meta or reflexive or what you will, that some might critically deem more of a conceit. But after seven feature documentaries, it seems to me to be an evolution of a holistic method, the way you go into material from this seemingly oblique angle that proves ultimately most revealing. This film could not have been made otherwise without falling into exploitative tendencies.

GREEN: Meta can seem quite derogatory. It seems like a stand-in for clever, as if somehow showing the process—this is how the sausage gets made!—is going to absolve you. And there is a critical response that suggests that in spite of showing everything you have nonetheless fallen prey to the process of selection. But so much of this film is about dealing with shame, directly, and with being silenced, so it is intrinsically self-aware. You see the process unfold, the first step of which is these guys confiding in each other. Ed warns: “Cut to the weepy dude in the corner, golf clap”. What he’s saying is, I don’t want you, your film, turning me into a victim, and I don’t want you, the audience, subjecting me to cheap applause. I don’t want you to treat me like, “oh I feel so bad for you, but I will go about my day.” This does nothing. When he says something this self-aware, the audience, the filmmakers, and his fellow participants all become part of a collective experience. If you’re not open about that, and not directly engaged with that, you’re not telling the truth about what this thing is. Of course the film is highly edited, it’s highly structured, and we leave a lot of things out—there were fights left out, tears left out, even doubts about the process, though the film does include a healthy amount of doubt. But we were skeptical of anything that appeared self-congratulatory; is the process working too well? Patting yourself on the back, for us as filmmakers or these men going through these emotional trials, takes away all the mystery and power of the film. What we choose to include is about honoring the truth of the material but also an open invitation. All documentaries are about what’s in the frame and what’s out of the frame, and those things are in constant conversation, always. What’s in the frame is what you see, what’s out of the frame is all of the questions you have about how the thing that you’re seeing got created. And I think you can activate what’s out of the frame, not only in an intellectually honest way, and hopefully invigorating way, but also in an emotionally resonant way, in a dramatic way. When you see, for example, Mike getting excited before his scene, working with the drama therapist, and he says “this is getting good,” that’s a dramatic beat that is carrying you through his scene. You know he’s excited to do it, which is both true and functions on a storytelling level as well.

NOTEBOOK: Do you think there are ethical implications to this too? Someone's emotional wellbeing, if not their life, is on the line.

GREEN: That is every documentary. Aesthetics and ethics are in constant conflict as well as conversation because of it: it’s actual people’s lives. What we’re trying to do, in the same way that we’re activating opposing elements, we want to activate the ethical questions so that they become part of a greater shared experience of the viewer. You should as a viewer be thinking about how you see survivors. The survivors certainly are—hence the “golf clap”—they’re thinking vividly about it. There were versions of the film that felt too safe, and there were versions that felt a little unsafe too. There were two kinds of ethical questions bearing on the process: the first, should you do it or not? Throughout the process there was always an exit door. For every real and metaphorical room we stepped into, there was a door out. Do we want to leave? We can leave at any time. None of this has to happen. We’re not obliged to do any of this. If you want to stop, there’s no imperative to continue unless you, and we collectively, want to. Second, there is the ethical question that arises from editing: how is this process represented and assembled. In the first case, we’re working together with trained professionals in the therapeutic field of trauma. And the men being together also created a protective environment; the camera was not seen as a threatening device. In terms of representation, the safest edits did not honor the risks these men were taking. If we were too worried about the viewer thinking this was good or not, it did not honor how scary it felt at times. While the more frightening cuts failed to honor how cathartic and safe everyone felt. I spent a year editing the film to find a way to exhibit the truth of both the risk involved and the safety that we worked hard to maintain. We created a sandbox to play in, and it was important to feel its boundaries to know what was the desired goal. That was the trickiest part. How much information makes it either too safe or too dangerous.

NOTEBOOK: It seems like discomfort, rather than assurance, might be more of the long term benefit of looking to art, to cinema. The film is an object lesson in the therapeutic value of creativity, even in a very plastic context, such as building a set, mise en scène…

GREEN: When Ed tells his actual therapist—and I want to emphasize that we’re not therapists, we’re making art together, which has therapeutic qualities—that he got to create a scene, the response was: if only this was possible with all my clients! That was reassuring because I’m following the survivor’s lead, but that can lead you off a cliff. What they want to do and what they might benefit from can be so divergent. So having the blessings of an actual therapist, in this case, is very helpful. But the film is careful to make you aware that although getting these six men together to make art is helpful and important, they still face systematic forms of abuse, as with the  statute of limitations, that have denied them as well as thousands of other survivors of justice, again and again. So you literally watch Ed exert some control over what he says is one of the worst moments of his life. We’re experiencing that. But he can’t control the political dimension of this larger world that exists beyond the creative space.

NOTEBOOK: There are limits to the amount of redemption that can be taken away from this, for Ed in the moment, but also for the viewer, no longer passively removed.

GREEN: I don’t want to spoil anything, but there is a very cathartic moment that occurs to Joe, where he’s able to make a major leap forward, but in the very next scene, the confessional scene, he’s dealing with a whole new set of challenges. It’s like, slay one dragon, which he says about the lake scene, but now there’s another. We don’t want to spell this out in the film but for these men it is resonant. That is how healing operates, no? It’s not a narrative, it is a convulsive process, two steps forward, five steps back. We had to represent that as clearly as possible. So we could play with tension in the edit to faithfully render the complicated nature of healing.

NOTEBOOK: It’s visceral. I can’t remember a film with this much genuine male vulnerability on display. Do you think this kind of exposing of the self can also have a therapeutic effect on the audience?

GREEN: As Joe says at one point, it’s worth it, because it’s going to help a lot of other survivors. Think of it this way: drama therapy is the intentional use of art toward healing purposes. Painting, drama, any expressive action. We’ve realized that documentary filmmaking itself is a form of drama therapy, and I don’t say this to be coy, but it has to work in order to be helpful to those who are participating. It’s not only a matter of exposure or making one visible, but against a history of being silenced. So visibility and voice are about making connections. These six men also consider themselves fortunate, in that they have lived to tell, they are not destitute as a result of their trauma, they have not succumbed to drug addiction or suicide, they’ve made it this far, many with happy families and supportive partners. Indeed some even suffer from survivor’s guilt, for getting to the point where they get to be a part of something. Joe, and this is not in the movie, moves from “why did this happen to me” to “why do I get to be the one who gets to go back to conquer my demons?”. But he justifies this because it might help someone else conquer theirs. And it was in my relating to these men that I too had to confront the shape of my own suffering. I consider them leaders, because they are survivors in the true sense: they’ve elected to show us, to show the world. I think we’re in the very beginning stages of dealing collectively with what trauma really is, how it physically manifests. They’ve been through the worst, from abuse that lives in their bodies, and in their hearts. So that they now lead us out by example, to a place where we can think about our own respective healing. The documentary model of pointing a camera at a person or culture and saying “tell me your victim story” has to die. It’s diminishing, reductive, and can be hurtful. We have to elevate that form, and make a framework that is absolutely about moving forward. That is the very definition of procession: moving forward.

NOTEBOOK: Embodiment is critical to this, no? It can’t be theorized.

GREEN: Totally. Bessel van der Kolk’s influential work The Body Keeps the Score speaks to this, how trauma is stored in the body, and one way of working through this is acting out roles. You get to see this so clearly in the film. What’s exciting to me, after making several films, is realizing that that’s what I’ve been pursuing this whole time. I may not have known it. I’m growing as an artist and a person as I make these films. It’s why I didn’t care if Brandy might be acting in Actress, it’s why I didn’t care if the reenactments in Kate Plays Christine were good enough. We’re doing some primordial form of therapy through acting out. And it’s what so many documentaries are doing but may not be aware of it, or let on.

NOTEBOOK: Is this why, contrary to some criticism of your films, they require a kind of anti-aesthetic? For instance, the church scene we see early on is so garish upon first view, but we will revisit it from an entirely different perspective later on, when it will have changed dramatically from an empathic circling back. In this way the most moving sequences are happening through, or on account of, a working of genre.

GREEN: Yeah, the green lights in his eyes, it’s kind of off-putting, right? The opening press conference is a piece of journalism that functionally means you have to see these men as victimized by the church. So there is this piece of reportage that is very particular, and we know very well what it is about, but in the very next scene of representing this there is a shock: what am I to make of this? But when you come back to the scene later you understand it. I can’t really ethically tell a story in which I dramatically speculate if these guys are going to get to make their scenes. In Bisbee ‘17, it was important that you knew that the deportation took place, so that narratively we’re not fetishizing the round up of immigrants by white militia. I can’t lead you into wanting to see that happen, just as here I can’t want you to relish these men working through their trauma. So when you see this sequence in the church, it puts you in doubt, you’re not sure what to make of it. It activates your emotional response in a different way.

I love nominally bad filmmaking, but I’m not an artist who works in the tradition of camp. But I love this idea of being challenged to question what is good and not good. How do you read through images, and intentionality? So that initial scene is full of ideas, and the question becomes: how does this place full of cheesy ideas become informed by the power of nightmares? That can be a very effective proximity.

NOTEBOOK: I felt like I was not reduced to voyeurism. 

GREEN: The question of what is a film for gets evoked. Documentaries can’t in themselves change the world, but I do believe that they can change the people who watch them and the people involved in them. It changes the lives of the participants most importantly. That becomes a life question, central to my place in the world as a filmmaker but also as a professor, a father, a friend, a collaborator. Why are we doing this? When you see this abuse in which men have been silenced, the stakes of why we make movies are superseded by the stakes incurred by those on-screen. Formal interest and real world mesh.


NOTEBOOK: I’m thinking of the devastating scene in which Mike Foreman goes to the bakery. It’s the most charged space and yet it is utterly ordinary. There is a political dimension to the mundane. If you know nothing of that backstory, it’s just a cake. Same with a broken fishing pole beside a forgotten lake.

GREEN: That is how trauma works. It may be a cliché but it’s true, that you just never know what someone else is going through. That’s what makes being in society so difficult. We may not know what is making someone appear so rude. It’s transformative seeing Mike going from being so angry, so locked in his narratives, and his words—he's someone who cares deeply about his words, because he didn’t know what had happened to him and the memories returned—and this explains so much. It’s a narrative in his head, and he just has to get that out, and he’s very literal about it. We had to move him forward, so that he understood that sound, image, and metaphor were going to take him to another place. Watching his scene at a world premiere and it gets an ovation, wow. Even he knows that when he gets on a rant it’s so off putting, and we’re like, “Mike you’re pushing people away with your anger”, and suddenly it’s been transformed into a glorious moment! What a testament to the power of making films together: that the most repellant anger can be turned into a hell-yeah triumphant moment, and dude we love you. The most important thing is that Mike has experienced that transformation. Not only did he trust us enough to do the scene, he helped me edit it, which was tough because he wanted it to be a twenty-five-minute scene. Then to be in the room where he sees the scene work, just incredible.

NOTEBOOK: Incidentally, throughout the film, they all become larger-than-life characters. Stars almost.

GREEN: There are six distinct views of masculinity, albeit narrowly defined in that they are all midwestern and white. But within this there is so much variation. When you put Mike and Ed and Dan and Joe in a shot together, there is an incredible spectrum, everyone becomes elevated. Their star quality comes from their brotherhood, really, the fact that they love each other. And this is what you’re witness to basically, and it’s endearing.

NOTEBOOK: The camera was sensitive to this I think.

GREEN: Yes, Rob Kolodny is the DP but much more than that he’s a co-creator. He’s deeply intuitive and feels other people’s presences, but also can appear to be emotionally distant in a way so as to “go invisible”, as he calls it. We acknowledge the presence of the camera but he’s able to make people feel so comfortable, and his care is transmitted to the image. There were literally instances in the film where the camera movement created a moment of catharsis, like the panning away from one brother to another, from tragic to comic. There was closure made possible by that one gesture, and he knew when to move on. I as the director would not have known that. If you’re too fixated on the tears, you miss everything else.

NOTEBOOK: Yeah, it’s like you can’t plan a film around grief but you can let grief dictate where the film will go…. 

GREEN: There’s only so much you can plan. From spontaneous ‘documentary’ moments to highly staged scenes full of ideas about movies, the two things speak to each other in very illuminating ways. 

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