I was sitting opposite Steve and Howard.
These were two men, role models really, with whom I'd shared a good majority of my childhood as a child living with spina bifida. We were in a small conference room in the back of a Kingdom Hall, the term the Jehovah's Witnesses use for their churches, and I was about to experience the absolute implosion of my entire existence.
Informed by a neighbor who'd witnessed through a fence what had been sexual assault by a neighbor, my mother had done what any good Jehovah's Witness would have done. She went to the Elders of the congregation. They, in turn, had come to me.
This should have been my moment of rescue after multiple years and multiple assaults. This should have been something resembling justice-seeking or unconditional love or just simply believing.
Instead, I was labeled as homosexual and removed from all of my church activities. They packed away their reports in some file, at this is what happened in my mind, and my entire existence changed.
I wasn't believed. For a few years, I was able to stuff the trauma. Eventually, of course, it came to the surface and expressed itself in mostly self-injurious ways until, years later, I would find the circle that believed me and helped me heal.
I've thought about those years recently as I went through a few health challenges including possible cancer. If you're remotely familiar with the Jehovah's Witnesses, then you already know that blood transfusions are not allowed.
Even though I've not been a Jehovah's Witness for over 30 years, I'd never had a blood transfusion until late 2019 when I was hospitalized for dehydration and would end up losing the remainder of a left leg that had already been amputated below the knee.
A year later, some unexpectedly off labs caused my primary care physician to explore further. She eventually sent me to a hematologist/oncologist, a visit that would end with the possibility of my diagnosis with Myeloma, or blood cancer.
30 years after leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses, or being kicked out, those old tapes were playing loudly as I couldn't shake the idea that somehow I must be getting punished for that blood transfusion.
My apologies if you're sitting there thinking to yourself "When is he going to get to his review of Procession?"
The truth is that Procession is easily one of the year's most profound and moving documentaries. It's a film that shook me to my core and made me go back and come face-to-face with my own old tapes around organized religion and the abuses of yesteryear and the old, abusive tapes that linger to this day. My story, I suppose, is really nothing like the stories that unfold in Procession.
In other ways, it is exactly like the stories that unfold in Procession.
Directed by Robert Greene (Kate Plays Christine), Procession is simultaneously a gut punch and an exhilarating motion picture. It centers around six men - Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Joe Eldred, Tom Viviano, Dan Laurine, and Michael Sandridge - all six of whom experienced childhood abuse perpetrated by poweful figures within the Catholic Church. Procession is, in some ways, a most familiar film. Yet, in reality, there has never been another film like Procession.
Procession is not necessarily a film you will "enjoy" watching, though it's a most important film. These six men are in different stages of their healing journeys, a truth evidenced by the fact that Greene discovered them via a 2018 Kansas City press conference held by lawyer Rebecca Randles with three of the men. It was announced that they could positively identify hundreds of sexual abusers within the Missouri Catholic churches.
Having seen this press conference, Greene approached Randles about the idea for this film - essentially giving these men the chance to bring their stories to life therapeutically guided by Monica Phinney, a registered drama therapist.
If you are like me, your red flags are immediately going off.
This sounds like it will lead to exploitation. It really does.
Yet, this never happens.
Instead, Procession becomes one of the most profound, emotionally honest, and insightful documentaries ever to approach the world of trauma survivors. I will confess that even I approached the film cautiously, somewhat expecting yet another exploitative documentary selling the drama with the survivors paying the price.
Somehow, Greene manages to avoid this trap. There's no doubt the presence of Monica Phinney is a key contributor.
While the stories that unfold here have much to say about injustice, for the most part Procession focuses its lens on these men and allows them to decide how their stories will come to life. The resulting recreations are astounding - angry yet exhilarating, wounded yet reclaiming of power, acknowledging the past while also laying claim to a better present and future.
Greene is unflinching in holding cinematic space for these men. Priests are named, though without exception not a single one has experienced any consequence whatsoever as of the making of this film. When Mike Foreman decides to stage a protest outside a Catholic center that inevitably leads to police arrival, he can't help but question "Where were the police when I was being assaulted?"
Procession is not always an easy film. Yet, it's profoundly, and yes I'm using the word profoundly again, moving to watch these men learn to express themselves amongst those who believe and to also begin building themselves an unwavering circle of humanity. The vignettes that are created are rich with rituals that have been tainted by abuse, somehow these vignettes reclaiming some semblance of the significance of these rituals.
The scenes also center around one young lad who participates in the project and, in fact, portrays the boy for all six men - a reminder that they are, essentially, all this boy. You couldn't help but worry about this boy, yet Greene seems to know this and incorporates that very fact into the scenario. It works beautifully.
From the stories that unfold to the visits to places where abuse occurred, Procession is absolutely uncompromising yet always steadfast in its commitment to protect and empower these men. Watching it all unfold, especially as someone who has found much of my own healing from creativity, is absolutely mesmerizing.
There is so much more I could say. There's so much more I want to say. Yet, in reality, this is a film best experienced. Winding down its festival run and currently screening at Indy's Heartland International Film Festival, Procession has been picked up by Netflix for distribution and is such an important, vital film that it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
Procession altered my psyche. It changed me. It also made me look back at my own unresolved traumas, especially those involving organized religion. Yet, at its core Procession is also an incredibly hopeful film about the power of belief, the necessity of community, and the difficult lesson that sometimes we must claim healing for ourselves even when the world around us fails us.
Procession is, quite simply, one of the very best documentaries of 2021.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic