Written by Patrick Hao
Documentarian Robert Greene has had a career of self-reflexive documentaries that are almost openly hostile to the idea of honesty within the medium. In Kate Plays Christine, a documentary about an actress preparing for the role in a fake movie of a real-life journalist who committed suicide live on air. The film explores the ethics of exploiting such a tragic story while also untangling the real-life trauma of a story that has become lore and how that can completely engulf an actress portraying such a role. In Bisbee ’17, he chronicles and recruits an Arizona town to recreate the suppression of a massive worker strike leading to an illegal mass deportation. Many of the residents involved in the recreation have a direct lineage to those who directly led to the events. In doing so, the people involved directly confront the heinous past that runs through the town and their personal histories, presenting a form of atonement.
Robert Greene’s newest film, Procession concludes an unofficial trilogy of sorts within Greene’s filmography on the effects, purpose, and power of reenactment. With Kate Plays Christine it’s an actress reenacting the actions of another. With Bisbee ’17 it’s people reenacting the actions of their ancestors. Procession is about people reenacting their younger selves and the healing powers such recreation could have.
In this case, Greene focuses on six grown men who had been previously sexually abused by Catholic priests as children. Greene presents them with the opportunity to script scenes representing their abuse in whatever fantastical machinations they want. A hackier filmmaker would take a concept like this and make a saccharine film about catharsis. For Greene and his abundance of empathy, his film is a constant tension of self-doubt. The film constantly questions itself on the ethics of such recreation. And whether at the end of the day, this helps anyone at all.
The through-line is a collection of men working through their trauma through the collaborative nature of art. These are men who have suffered through similar abuses, although at different times, different parishes. Five scripted scenes are ultimately produced, with the sixth man choosing to want to be an actor in two of the scenes as his form of exorcism.
Greene is barely a character in this film, although his presence is always known. Greene would never let you forget this is an exercise in filmmaking. He does allow the five men producing the scripted scene total creative control. Thus, they get “film by” credits in the open titles. The surprise comes with how each story is told, each being conveyed differently. None of these are direct recreation of the worst moments of abuse. Rather, they are steeped in symbolism, all with varying degrees of overtness. But that should be expected with how we deal with trauma. Some of the more fantastical can even harken back to All That Jazz, another form of exorcism of demons through art by filmmaker Bob Fosse.
It is incredible how Greene never feels like he is exploiting these subjects or their worst moments. Rather, because the men always seem to be in the forefront of the film, with total control, Procession becomes a real exercise in healing through art, through confrontation. For someone who has had been busy trying to reconcile if art depicting the real can ever be truly ethical, it is fitting for Greene to present a film that is deeply indebted to the therapeutic nature of art.
One child portrays each of the men as children in all the segments. We see this actor interact with the men throughout and be treated with such care that was never afforded to them. In return, he also empathizes with them, having to also get into the mental headspace of these men. This profound empathy exhibited had me bursting into tears. To think we can be in a world so cruel yet so kind, all at the same time.
Procession is available to stream on Netflix.