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Reenacting their own childhood abuse from Catholic clergy, 6 men heal in 'Procession'

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A few years back, six men sat down in a circle in Kansas City. They had one thing in common. All had been sexually abused as children by clergy of the Catholic Church. They'd been brought together by a filmmaker, Robert Greene, who is proposing to help them cope with their trauma in a way they hadn't tried before. They would make sets, write scripts, put on costumes and perform the most painful, haunting moments of their childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PROCESSION")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As self) I can't risk not being believed, and I can't risk that I look like I'm exploiting what happened to me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As self) Or you look pathetic. I can't look like a pathetic emotional mess. It's...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As self) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As self) No, that's not fair.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (As self) I do think that we are going to hit some rough spots as far as emotions.

FADEL: Their efforts to make those scenes and to help each other step by step are captured in Robert Greene's new movie "Procession." And he joins me now. Good morning.

ROBERT GREENE: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: So let's start with some of your earlier films. Like, "Bisbee '17" and "Kate Plays Christine" also featured reenactments, but here, your actors are the survivors themselves. Why tell the story, and why this way?

GREENE: What we discovered, I guess, would be that staging aspects of reality gets at different levels of reality, right? So "Bisbee '17," particularly - it was about a small town, Bisbee, Ariz., that was reenacting a historically traumatic event. And we had locals dress up to play the parts of a hundred years ago where 1,200 striking miners were deported out of town. And what we found with that film was that it was actually deeply cathartic to do this kind of work. There was a Q&A where someone asked me, well, why in "Bisbee '17" did you not have a therapist there? And frankly, I had no good answer to why we didn't have a therapist on the ground that day. And that sort of got me on a path of thinking about things like drama therapy, which "Procession" uses as one of its jumping off points. How do you actually take documentary filmmaking and not just depict something but actually help the people that are on screen and maybe even help ourselves making it?

FADEL: You know, I think about this a lot in my own work in journalism, whenever we interview survivors of sexual assault, survivors of any trauma, how to walk the line where it's not exploitative. What did you do to ensure that that wouldn't happen, that they wouldn't be retraumatized?

GREENE: So probably the most important person to the entire project is a lawyer named Rebecca Randles, who helped all these guys in different degrees as a representative, as a friend. And she told me something early that was so important and kind of, like, guided everything that we did. Basically, the trauma doesn't just come from being abused. It comes from the power, your power being taken away again and again and again. It comes from your power being taken away by the abuser. It's taken away by parents who don't listen. It's taken away by parishioners - you know, the different versions of enablers. And so we just took that to heart. And as risky and complex and difficult as this was, I believe the entire time, they felt like they were absolutely driving this car, steering the ship, whatever metaphor you want to use, right?

You know, I'll give you an example. The going back to the places of abuse, which is something that you see in the film. You see them go back to locations, churches, lake houses, et cetera. That was never our intention, never our idea. That came directly from Ed, one of the guys. And he said, you know, maybe I can go back to this cathedral. Maybe I can go back to this bell that I used to ring as a kid. And maybe I can ring that bell again. And seeing him do that gave us all hope. You know, that's kind of the power of making films.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PROCESSION")

MIKE FOREMAN: Hey, Mike. Listen. Don't worry about this. You're not 11 years old anymore. I've got this. And don't blame mom. As ridiculous as it was is what she did, she was so brainwashed. She thought that priest was God.

FADEL: For so many of these men, their abusers died without facing any repercussions in their lives. Some of them are still serving in the Catholic Church. And I think of Mike Foreman, whose anger is so raw, and it's more directed at what happened after he came forward.

GREENE: Mike is one of the most generous, wonderful men I've ever met in my life. And like a lot of survivors, he had a moment late in his life where he realized, oh, this thing that happened to me is the reason why my life has turned out the way it has. And that life is not full of joy and happiness. It's not full of grandchildren. It's not full of what could have been. It's full of the opposite. It's full of a lot of loneliness, frankly.

And once he realized that, he's got a very logical brain. And that logical brain says, I will come forward, and I will get some sort of justice. I will get help. And when he goes to this independent review board, quote, unquote, "independent review board" and they end up telling him, we don't believe you, that creates a spiral of anger and disbelief. And so his scene is a total transformation of that dark moment. And I'll say I'll report this even for folks who haven't seen the film yet. Mike now has a girlfriend (laughter). His first...

FADEL: Because in the film, he talks about never having had a long-term relationship.

GREENE: Yeah, that's a lighthearted but very direct and loving example of the power that comes from taking back this pain and doing something with it.

FADEL: The film premiered Wednesday in Kansas City, where these men are from. The diocese there has already scheduled healing conversations in response to the release of this film. Having made this film, worked with these six men for so long, are healing conversations enough?

GREENE: You know, when I saw the headlines, I was excited. I was actually - you know, for me, it was like, oh, look, they're responding, and they're responding not in the way that maybe they responded in the early 2000s or something, right? And then, of course, like a lot of this process, I was quickly educated by the guys themselves. And they were saying they use the same kind of rituals, the same language, the same system, frankly, of ritual and symbol that enabled the abuse to then try to heal from the abuse. You know, most of us believe that change is possible. It's not - I am not part of the church. That's not for me to say. I will say that I think the church will do well by listening to survivors - what they actually need, not what the church thinks they need.

FADEL: Robert Greene. His new film "Procession" is available on Netflix. Thank you so much for joining us.

GREENE: Thanks for having me, and thanks for the great conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOE KEATING'S "TETRISHEAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.