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'Procession' brings experiences of trauma and pain to a place we can actually see

Courtesy of Netflix

The way psychological trauma manifests itself in the body is a stunning thing to see, and one of the few real opportunities we have to get closer to really understanding the power of that trauma in the people who have experienced it. This isn’t the point of Robert Greene’s extraordinary new documentary Procession, but it’s impossible not to think about when you see middle-aged men uncontrollably shaking as they revisit the places that caused them so much pain throughout the rest of their lives.

The movie is about a handful of men who are survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests, but this is not remotely what you expect from a documentary. Greene is a serious experimenter when it comes to nonfiction film, and here he takes what’s almost a shockingly participative role—he contacted the men and asked if they wanted to create the film with him, working with a drama therapist to write and produce vignettes based on their own abuse. The men develop these scenes, hiring a young actor to stand in for them at their younger age, and playing the roles of the adults themselves. But of course the goal is not just to relive the trauma, but to gain control over it, and in the process the men also add elements and resolutions that will hopefully turn out to be cathartic victories, allowing them some kind of break with their decades of constant pain.

It’s an incredible approach, and it’s a little tempting to think it’s exploitative, but remember—all documentary is exploitation to some degree, that’s unavoidable, and also these men are fully on board with this, which is both surprising and understandable, given it’s clear nothing else they’ve tried in their lives has helped ease the raging torment inside them.

The ultimate hope, of course, is that these men will find some kind of relief, but for us, as viewers, we’re given a physical representation of this emotional and psychological horror that we could not possibly have otherwise. It’s not just seeing these scenes played out, it’s seeing the men talk through how to create those scenes, expressing their experiences, and recreating those experiences themselves or watching directly as others recreate them. And in all of this we become exceedingly aware of their trauma through the men’s actions and their bodies. Every one of them has eyes that tell you they live with constant struggle. Some of them are very still and quiet but right on the edge of breakdown, some of them are overtly and enormously angry. Our awareness of this physicality even extends beyond the men themselves, as we see the importance of particular places and objects, like a lake house and a broken fishing pole, and what those mean to these men.

The importance of all of this for their lives is so astounding it cannot be overstated, but important for us is the way this movie gives us access in a concrete way to something that inherently can’t be seen. We understand that other people have trauma and pain, but we’re always removed from that to one degree or another. What Procession does is to bring those experiences to a place we can actually see, to bring it out of the abstract and make it explicit to us. But while this is intensely difficult, it’s also not entirely so—in bringing this to our eyes, Greene and these men also show us, in a very real way, the possibility of healing. And this, too, is something we need to see.

Procession is on Netflix

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.