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In two documentaries that are early contenders in this year’s Oscar race, the films’ subjects relive painful experiences. In Nat Geo’s The Rescue, the divers who saved 12 kids and their 25-year-old coach from a flooding cave return to re-create the experience in order to show audiences what it was like in those dark caves, while in Netflix’s Procession, sexual abuse survivors storyboard their memories to face their trauma and find peace.
The Rescue directors Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, whose Free Solo won the 2019 Oscar for best documentary feature, weren’t in Thailand in 2018 when the Tham Luang cave rescue happened, and there was no known footage except for one or two clips — so immediately, they knew they’d be facing a challenge to visually portray the rescue mission that ensued. Initially suggesting stunt divers to re-create the scenes in the cave system, the real divers who extracted the boys one by one wanted to do it themselves for accuracy.
“We had a great story but no footage shot inside the cave during the rescue,” Vasarhelyi and Chin say via email. “Those who were present are the only ones who knew what happened. As filmmakers, reenactments were always the intention, but we like to think of them more as demonstrations. The emotional weight and responsibility when you see someone binding a child’s hands behind their back and pushing their head under the water [to get them past tight, submerged areas] is unparalleled. [The divers] knew how important it was in terms of telling their story accurately and granting us and the audience a greater insight into exactly what happened.”
Rick Stanton, one of the international volunteer divers from the rescue, signed up to be a part of the documentary. “Obviously, part of that process — for which we were very keen — was to re-create those scenes that were not documented at the time because there was no clarity in the water,” he says of the darkness of the caves. “We wanted it to be shown in the most authentic manner possible, something that I know was also important to Chai and Jimmy.”
The filmmakers knew they needed to “showcase the scale and scope of the cave” and therefore used the underwater filming stage at Pinewood Studios and built a replica cave system in a 6-meter-deep tank. To capture the muddy look of water inside the caves, the duo used ground broccoli, and Stanton and fellow diver John Volanthen assisted the filmmakers in repeating what they saw in real life.
Meanwhile, Robert Greene, director of Procession, didn’t re-create scenes of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, per se, but instead was influenced by “drama therapy” to help the survivors face their trauma. The six men who tell their stories in the documentary took the memories of their experiences and tried to find peace and justice by writing fictional scenes that became short films.
“What I found myself interested in is the idea of performance in documentary and what that means,” says Greene. “Somewhere along the way, I realized what I was interested in is how staging these scenes has this therapeutic quality. A lot of times, what we don’t realize as documentary filmmakers is that by putting a camera on someone as they’re telling their story, the presence of the camera, the presence of the film crew, is almost like giving a stage to issues that people need to work through. It very much has this therapy-like quality to it that I think is underdiscussed.”
Joe Eldred, one of the survivors whose stories are explored in the film, was familiar with the concept of drama therapy when he started the project but says he never had the opportunity to participate in it until Procession. “It was difficult at first due to the imposing walls of distrust I had built around myself, but after some time, I began to see the possible benefits if I could step out of the loneliness that I had created. … I was certainly concerned and very aware that being traumatized again could occur, but having that safe space developed within drama therapy helped ensure that I would come out the other side in a better mental space. He adds: “Feeling alone is crippling, but this project introduced me to an amazing group of men who now share an experience that changed my life. I am not alone.”
Greene instilled policies among the film crew that helped prevent any possibility that reenacting the painful memories could retraumatize the survivors, creating a safe space that was solidified by a therapist on set: “There were constant check-ins, someone was always around, whether it’d be one of the therapists, including Rebecca [Randles, a lawyer and advocate] and Sasha [Black, a trauma-trained therapist], in that group or family members. Then the guys started to feel like a family, and that was its own sort of connection,” he says. “No one can understand how it feels to be in some of these situations like them. We were all taking care of each other constantly. It wasn’t a secondary thing — it was a primary thing. Everything else flowed from the sense of care that we had established with one another.”
It was actually the six survivors who suggested going back to the places they experienced their abuse to help combat their trauma, says Greene. “It’s genuinely inspirational. They were leading the way for us. It was our idea to start the process, but once it was off and running, they were the leaders. I feel like they are cultural leaders — these six men have shown us ways to cope.”
For Greene, it also was important for the survivors to no longer feel shame for what they had been through.
“Healing is never complete — there is no such thing as fixing this, and there is nothing we can do, there’s nothing the court system can do, there is nothing the Church can do to give back what was taken from these guys,” adds Greene. “They are all in a place where they are tired of that shame they feel, they are tired of feeling powerless. Just giving them something where they can be proud of what we did together, it’s so effective.”
Adds Ed Gavagan, another survivor, “I think we were so used to being alone in our grief and trauma that being able to turn to the group and get a hug or an arm around our shoulders kept us all safer than we ever could have imagined.”
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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