Robert Greene: “This film blames the way the media portray survivors”
The director returns to the complex ethics of his new documentary, Procession, which gives a voice to survivors of sexual abuse.
In filmography of noble formal experiences to uncover truth through artifice, Robert Greene’s new film Procession – in which survivors of abuse in the Catholic Church confront their demons by creating short films stylizing their experiences – is his most direct and empathetic work to date. For the first time in his career, he uses his keen sense of non-fiction theory to benefit real, living and present people.
LWLies: How do you approach such a sensitive topic when first setting up a movie like this?
Greene: The first step was to do everything [lawyer] Rebecca [Randles]. We had months and months of conversations before we even got in front of the guys. We came to her with a first version of the idea for the film, which was originally to do drama therapy in front of the camera. I kind of told Rebecca this and introduced it to a room full of theater therapists, who had gathered for the North American Drama Therapy Association convention in Kansas City, a coincidence of pure serendipity. I explained this idea, and they all said, ‘You can’t do this, it can’t be done on camera. It’s therapy! So we had to learn the difference between therapy and therapy, a really useful distinction. Therapy has a specific purpose, and it takes its own form. So, in that first meeting, the point was “should we even do this?” As much as it was “what are we going to do?”
As far as the guys’ initial reaction was to wonder what I wanted from them, you can see that in the movie. They are incredibly aware of how they don’t want to be seen. No one wants to be a bloody story. This feeling was palpable and incredible, because in a way it was an accusation of how the media portrayed the survivors. When you talk to someone as a documentary maker to tell their story in quotes, they’ll let you know what they don’t want to see, much of which is from documentaries they’ve seen. It gives you advice, and more importantly, it gives them agency. I told them right away, “One way to avoid this portrayal is to include this conversation, right now, in the movie.”
How does the introduction of the elements of cinema change the mechanics of dramatherapy?
Drama therapy is the backbone of the film, but technically we don’t do drama therapy. I believe that art, doing something together, can be therapeutic. Recently, in a Q&A, Michael spoke about how it might seem like we’ve been through this so intensely, but there are a lot of stops and starts when you’re making a movie. It’s all in pieces. This progressive idea, that we can walk into a church and slowly turn it into a setting, is a way of reclaiming power. Drama therapy isn’t always about giving back power, but rather about going within yourself to understand how trauma unfolds in your body and mind on a daily basis. It’s the role-playing game of a story, whereas it’s about building something that has a product down the road. The product is not the object of dramatherapy, which focuses more on the experience.
The editing of this movie, and giving it back to the guys, that could be the most important part of this whole process. Confront these dark spaces, use Church symbols to expose the Church – these are important right now. It’s tough, but we all knew we were doing something to edit and present. It can show Dan he’s a hero, show Michael he’s creative, show Joe where he’s been and how he got here, show Mike he’s capable of change, show Tom what ‘he can be an integral part of that process, showing Ed that he’s really exercised his voice. You can watch it and accept that hey, I did. Dissociation, being separated from the boy in you, is one of the biggest problems. Seeing yourself on the screen, outside of yourself, brings you a new kind of awareness.
With the emphasis on full transparency of disclosure, is there any part of this process that we don’t see?
There could be a six hour cut from this movie. There was, in fact, and every moment was charged. There are legal paths that I would have liked to include, emotional paths, returns to sites of abuse – these were really painful to cut out. These are perhaps the most difficult conversations, when they have yielded something important that we cannot use. But everyone understands that the goal is for it to be useful to others. Ed, for example: After the church bell ringing scene, we went to a rural mountainous area where he was taken and photographed. Come back to that rock, stand there, say, ‘I don’t have to go back to that place anymore,’ that was a breakthrough. Even so, Ed acknowledged that the images of the church bell had been somehow diminished by rock afterwards.
You want to give all the space it needs. It would be a scene of at least eight minutes or it just doesn’t work. There were times when people were triggered, and we had to figure out how much they wanted to lean on that. Joe said to the camera, and it was in the cut until the very end, he said, “I went from” why me? “to” why am I the one who can go back and defeat these demons? “I can see that other people deserve their moment at Viking Lake, and perhaps vicariously through me they can kind of l ‘getting. It was a powerful feeling, but we ultimately decided we didn’t need it. In other cases, it was about removing what seemed too safe. If it’s too safe, we let’s not honor the risks that were taken here.
Has there been a response from the Church?
They announced that they would continue the “healing services” model. Most of them are still desperate to see the movie, although we had reps for the Kansas City premiere. So my only hope is that the answer will focus on helping survivors. Frankly, this can be helpful for some people and make them roll their eyes. I was happy with the answer at first, but the guys were quick to point out that this was bullshit, standard procedure. I was a little more optimistic about what they identified as double talk.
Where can your methods go from here? Your cinematographic technique, which revolves around the construction of fireworks, what application could it have after that?
Honestly, I don’t know, although I also didn’t know after Bisbee or Kate Plays Christine. Kate was an effort to burn everything down, Bisbee was trying to pick him up, so I don’t know where to go next. On the mental health grounds, for me Michael has been very good at checking in and making sure I take care of myself. I started therapy for the first time in my life. It’s great, I should have done it 20 years ago, I would have made thousands of mistakes less. I feel like I’m at the end of something, which sometimes signals a new beginning, but sometimes is just an end. I have to find out what kind of person I am now.
Procession is one of the few films made over the past five years that seek to illustrate everything a documentary can do: Dick Johnson Is Dead; All light, everywhere; and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets being in that vein. Have you ever thought of this as a cohesive scene?
It’s just a combination of recognizing what non-fiction really is – from Flaherty to Herzog to Greaves to Yance Ford – with greater ease in making a movie. You can put the parts together more easily than before. There’s a real conversation that’s taken place over the last 10 years, I would say, that focuses on expanding the way we talk about documentary. We responded by doing increasingly provocative work, hopefully taking people to new places. This is the story of the documentary: people who struggle, fail and try to tell the truth again. Each new attempt builds on the previous one. It’s a story of attempts, from the direct cinema people thinking they got it, to the generation that relies on methods and philosophies, where we have the Maysles forcing Mick Jagger to look at himself. Then they do Gray Gardens, Herzog does Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and all of that moves an ongoing conversation forward.
There’s a great song called ‘The reality-based community‘from 2017, and [the author, Erika Balsom] wrote a scathing review of Kate Plays Christine, where she basically said that with Trump and Brexit and all, why do we have to watch this movie? It really affected me. Why watch movies that challenge reality? We have to take care of reality, belief and action. In a way, my work since then has been a response to this. ‘You know what? You’re right. We need to do something different.
This being your first film released by a major studio, have you been able to see the inner workings of how documentaries are sold and promoted in ways that you haven’t had before?
I have never been part of a system like this. I was talking about rewards stuff with the rewards team the other day, and their response to my apprehension was, “Hey, think about how many people you can help by spreading this. This is the most human response to what can turn out to be a very cynical thing. To me the rewards are a little silly, but I know it will help in a practical way. More importantly, I didn’t have to compromise the making of the film, I didn’t prepare a new edit after the acquisition. I will not do it ! I might as well go back to making films without a medium, or not making films at all. It seemed like the right time for this movie. Finding a real audience for this one has been amazing, as I truly believe it has the potential to help people who watch it.
Procession is now available on Netflix.
Reference of the Article-post – lwlies