DAE Talks With: Psychotherapist and Film Producer, Rebecca Day & Drama Therapist, Monica Phinney

Monica Phinney at the set of “Procession”. (Photo by Robert Greene)

All of us who work in the feature documentary filmmaking field are familiar with the personal tolls the work can take due to intense stress and feelings of frequent isolation. It takes perseverance, moxie, determination, and much fortitude to stay in a healthy creative space amidst the emotional and psychological minefields of working in this milieu. As someone who has frequently suffered from mental and emotional health issues directly related to my own work in the field, I’ve often sought out therapy. I believe (good) therapy is important as an essential ingredient in self-care and healthy working practices, not only for ourselves, but for our colleagues both in front of, and behind, the camera. 

I wanted to use the work-in-progress report called “The Price of Passion” that Scottish film producer and psychotherapist, Rebecca Day, generously shared with me regarding her research around mental health issues and solutions in the documentary filmmaking industry. I wanted to use the report as a launching point to talk to her and American drama therapist, Monica Phinney, about the myriad mental health issues facing nonfiction feature filmmakers, as well as what those in front of a documentarian’s camera might experience when asked to perform or re-imagine traumatic experiences for someone’s movie. Monica’s expertise as an on-set drama therapist for American filmmaker, Robert Greene’s film Procession (2021), is a potent touchstone for discussing how vital maintaining healthy relationships are during an intense shoot with a galvanizing issue at its center – in this case, a group of six men, all of whom survived sexual abuse by their Catholic priests, and their battle for justice as part of their healing process. Procession received the prestigious Peabody award the year of its release. 

Rebecca Day is a qualified psychotherapist and clinical supervisor. She founded Film In Mind, a therapy service for filmmakers, in 2018 to address mental health in the film industry. In her previous life as a documentary producer, she worked extensively with the Scottish Documentary Institute as an impact producer, most notably on the successful campaigns around the award-winning documentaries, I Am Breathing (2013) and Seven Songs for a Long Life (2015) and produced Becoming Animal (2018). The last film she worked on, Silent Men, a new feature about men’s mental health, is due to premiere at Sheffield Docfest in 2024. She combines her therapeutic skills with over a decade of documentary production experience to offer consultancies, workshops and therapeutic support to filmmakers working in difficult situations and with other vulnerable people. She is a co-founder of DocuMentality, alongside The D-Word, and Malikkah Rollins. DocuMentality is an international research project that has just released the “Price of Passion” mental health report. Rebecca is also working on the creation of an online resource hub for documentary makers and is part of working groups for #DocSafe, incubated by DAE, and the newly formed UK Documentary Film Council. She’s been invited as a guest speaker and mentor on panels and at workshops at IDFA, CPH:DOX, IDA Getting Real, WIFTV, BAFTA and Sheffield DocFest.

Monica Phinney is a drama therapist from Kansas City. Her professional work has centered around sexual and domestic violence and she has used nonfiction storytelling to achieve therapeutic goals for survivors and witnesses. I met Monica at the True/False Film Fest in 2022 when I was invited to host a panel discussion for the Based on a True Story (BOATS) conference put on by the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri where filmmaker Robert Greene teaches. The session was called “Playing Roles: Drama Therapy and Theatricality in Documentary” with Robert and Monica. We were also joined by Lebanese filmmaker, Eliane Raheb, director of 2021’s Miguel’s War. It was a lively discussion about theatricality, role playing, and how staging scenes can help us find deeper truths in documentary film. Monica then led spectators in a demonstration of how drama therapy actually works. I was electrified by her demo and, about a year later, when she offered an arts therapy workshop based around fostering healthy relationships, I grabbed a spot. It was a wonderful, enlightening and healing experience. Since I am so impressed by these two brilliant and articulate healers, I thought it would be a good idea to join them in conversation. My hope is that readers will find some of what’s contained herein inspiring, helpful, encouraging, and healing as well. 

Monica Phinney (Photo by Robert Greene)

Pamela Cohn (PC): I’d like to start the conversation around the personal reasons why you both chose a professional therapeutic path in line with your creative work, careers where you can build upon your desires to practice therapy through the tools of artmaking. What ultimately drives both of you to work in this capacity?

Monica Phinney (MP): Growing up, I suppose I always inherently knew the arts were a very healing thing for me. I come from a very creative family, but also a rigidly religious one. As time has gone on, I can see how many things about my upbringing were very beautiful, among so many things that really harmed me. I dove into the beautiful aspects when I was running from all the instabilities in my life and the arts provided stability. I was always heavily involved with theater and music mostly, as well as some involvement with visual arts. But before reaching university, I didn’t know there were career paths like drama therapy. 

For my undergrad, I attended Kansas State University. K-State has one of the few American Master’s programs in drama therapy. It was such an exciting idea to me – that I could make a difference in the lives of people struggling with various issues and work on that in such a meaningful way. It was such a natural fit for me because I wanted to do something healing for myself, as well as for the people I hoped to impact. After receiving my degree, my focus was primarily on intellectual and developmental disabilities, or, to use another term, neurodivergence. Since moving to Kansas City, my focus has been on the prevention of domestic violence and its flip side, the promotion of healthy relationships. That’s been the focus of my career. 

In the world today, particularly post-Covid, we all have economic struggles and very serious issues going on around us in the world. The arts, in general, get pushed aside because they’re viewed as a luxury somehow. It’s taken on a whole new meaning for me to be able to find purpose and healing in these art forms. Until it’s driven to the point of necessity, most people are not accessing things that are healing. I want people to view the arts as a maintenance tool, to view the workshops that I do in the same vein as you might view a yoga practice. You’re not necessarily in crisis when you seek out therapeutic tools, but you know that it’s good for you to incorporate and maintain in your life, making it part of your daily routine. So many people, I think, have lost that creative spark as part of their everyday life. That’s what it means to me right now. I’m focused on building strong communities in order not to feel so isolated and help people around me to not feel so isolated.

Rebecca Day, on stage during “Wellbeing at Every Stage of the Production” at BAFTA Connect Forum, (Photo by Alecsandra Dragoi/BAFTA)

Rebecca Day (RD): For me, the reasons I pursued psychotherapy were very much informed by producing documentaries for ten years. From a personal perspective, I never really felt I could fully be myself working as a producer. There was always an element of imagining what people wanted me to be. There was a real disconnect between the work we were all trying to do and how we were trying to operate and navigate in this documentary ecosystem that often didn’t feel very supportive. The period of my early thirties was full of change and reflection. I knew I wanted to start a family one day, and I knew I couldn’t keep working in the way I had done up until then. I had finished my first feature and that should have been my time to fly. But I just knew I could not continue down that path. The financial instability of it all was also a factor, the lack of work-life balance. I witnessed that in so many people around me, the same struggles and not being able to communicate them well, if at all.

I looked at psychotherapy training as a way to complement what I was doing, as a way of supporting myself as a producer. As I started that work, I immediately realized that that was the missing piece of this ecosystem. I saw that the intention of making documentaries was very similar to the intention of being a therapist. I was being given the tools and the language to help me survive and flourish and grow as a therapist and as a human being that I felt were completely lacking in the film industry. I knew quite quickly and instinctively that the support I wanted to create would be for filmmakers – anyone working on the creation of a documentary, really. What my training highlighted for me was that a dangerous situation could be created if we’re not aware of the traumas we might be coming into contact with, whether they were the filmmaker’s own traumas or pain, or that of the contributors. [Rebecca uses the term “contributors” to mean the subjects who appear in front of the camera.] 

There was danger, as well, in the complete lack of boundaries. I often ask filmmakers how they set boundaries and they don’t really know how to answer that question. One of the most gratifying things for me on a personal level was how comfortable I felt in this role, one of helping to set boundaries, creating safe spaces and challenging myself and the people I was working with in really open ways. It was exactly where I needed to be. On a community level, it was wanting to offer this learning to filmmakers. The last five years of that work has been all about listening to filmmakers and what their needs are and trying to develop a model of support that works for them. It’s growing and expanding all the time especially since more and more people are wanting to do this work. I believe in years to come this will be a viable career path for people, providing therapeutic support for this type of filmmaking.

Panel: “Wellbeing at Every Stage of the Production” at BAFTA Connect Forum (Photo by Alecsandra Dragoi/BAFTA)

PC: While he’s not a therapist, I know filmmaker Robert Greene to be a very responsible and highly ethical filmmaker – who pushes boundaries in all kinds of ways, including his own creative ones. But he does, somehow, make therapeutic work, taking his protagonists through very personal journeys while asking them to perform aspects of their lives. How do you vet makers who have these fabulous artistic visions, but, unlike Robert, may not take the care to deal with all the things that crop up during the making of a film? What were initial conversations like with Robert, Monica? What felt right to you to be on that set?

MP: Anyone who knows Robert would also say he might seem like the type of person that would go full steam ahead and run with his dream of the film and never look back. He probably is that person, so it took a great deal of restraint on his part to be so careful. I find Robert’s career fascinating from a drama therapy perspective because long before he knew about it as a field, in all of his films, he’s always been dabbling with this idea of the performances that we humans give in everyday life. That’s the thread that ties all his films together, the breaking of the fourth wall, what reality is, and the ways in which we are acting every day. He made a film about acting called Actress [2014]. In Fake It So Real [2012], he explores the world of professional wrestling, also very interesting from a performance perspective. Prior to Procession, he made Bisbee ’17 in 2018, the catalyst for wanting to make Procession. 

The very first time he and I spoke on the phone, it felt exactly right. I’m not sure if there was a real vetting process going on in my brain or whether it was just a positive vibe. In talking to him about his vision, it wasn’t incredibly detailed at the time nor was there a strong framework in place for what we wanted this to look like. It took form as time went on. All we knew for sure is that everyone had the same set of core values going into this, the same purpose, so that it would be a healing experience for the men who had been abused as young boys. We wanted to have their stories heard because that was their goal. We were only willing to bring awareness to the issue if it was beneficial and not harmful. Does everyone really have the same “why” here? That was my overriding question. Everyone on the back end of this project was going in with the appropriate “why”. We wanted to limit the potential harm because it was such an important story to be told. We knew that no matter how these stories are told, there is a possibility of re-traumatization. We wanted to do something entirely new where the intention was healing. I think that intentionality is everything.

Robert had already spoken to a roomful of drama therapists who work in the trauma field. They checked him in a lot of ways. They told him that he couldn’t just do drama therapy and film it and expect that to have positive results. We do always have to be honest, though, that we are making a product. We can’t have therapy sessions and have a camera present and not expect that the camera will alter things. When he came to me, he was looking for someone on the same wavelength creatively. I had already been working with sexual and domestic violence for several years, primarily on the prevention side, taking theater programs around for educational purposes, training teenagers to put on shows in schools about dating violence and sexual assault and running other arts-based programs for kids and adults. I would interview survivors of domestic violence and transcribe those into a show to promote awareness. I never worked in film prior to Procession, but I had been very vocal for years about how I felt there was such a need for a drama therapy presence in film. Actor Heath Ledger’s death brought up a lot of conversations about the traumatizing aspects of method acting for fiction films. [Ledger’s death in 2008 occurred during the editing of The Dark Knight and in the midst of filming his last role as Tony in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.] I found it interesting that more conversations around those sets weren’t happening and that there wasn’t a therapist to help “de-role” people from these very heavy parts. I’d been talking about that for years. 

I can’t say I necessarily believed Robert the first couple of months of this process when he would say that for every room that we built together, physical or metaphorical, there would always be a door through which to exit. It sounds lovely, but at the beginning I wasn’t sure that that was entirely true. I felt there was the potential for pressure to just go forward no matter what. As time went on, that trust was built between Robert and everyone involved in the film, because they saw that he did mean it. Since Procession came out, I’ve seen efforts to try and recreate something similar. A lot of times when people want to recreate the beautiful things that happened in Procession, they’re already coming to it from a place that isn’t going to work because they’re unwilling to have to potentially throw out the work that’s been done in the best interest of the subject. Robert was truly willing to stop at any point and continue to give everyone on the set agency; the power and control was in their hands. That was the whole point of the film, to put that power back in the hands of the people it belonged to. They’d already been robbed of that control. Without a psychotherapeutic background, Robert understands that when someone has had control taken, the most powerful and healing thing we can do is to hand over the reins. I don’t know what it’s like to work with other filmmakers, but it’s my assumption that it’s very rare to find someone willing to give up so much control on their own set for the sake of a healing process. I credit the success of the film to that. He tapped into something amazing by allowing people to have such a strong voice in every aspect of this project.

PC: Rebecca, in the “Price of Passion” report as part of the research you’re gathering, there is – for want of a better word – a “wish list”. In an ideal world, many filmmakers state that they’d love to have a trained professional therapist who understands the documentary industry and support them in navigating all the challenges that arise over the course of many years a project takes to make. There’s a lot in the report around the film professional feeling safe, feeling valued and heard, but also learning how to let go of the reins, as Monica described Robert doing, when necessary. Your thoughts?

RD: The thing that comes to mind first, for me, is the need for a shift in defining and understanding what the documentary process actually is. We talk about it as an art form, which it is. But there’s a whole other process that happens alongside that and that’s the human experience. That part of it is so crucial. How can you give the people involved agency in their own participation in the film? Where are the moments of growth that people are looking for? What’s the shared intention and motivation for making the project? The time to consider that is often missing, especially once things start running when you’re in a fundraising and creative process and not so much in a reflective one. When it comes to incorporating support, a lot of filmmakers certainly know they need it because they themselves are struggling with staying in contact with the process. 

There’s a question on the Non-Fiction Core Application that American organizations use now that asks how the mental health or care of contributors is going to be handled. But most really do not know how to answer that question. It’s great to have that question in there, but if filmmakers don’t have the tools to answer it, it only adds to the element of panic. We don’t really have the resources to meet that need currently. In my experience, the expectation is on the filmmaker to fix any problem or provide answers to the vulnerability that exists within every single project. We need a total transformation in terms of risk assessment and defining the healing element, the shared human experience that’s going to happen. So much of all this happens off-camera. It won’t necessarily go into the final cut, but it needs to be valued in exactly the same way as if it were. As in Robert’s film, while some of this ends up on screen, a massive proportion does not.

Monica Phinney at the set of “Procession”. (Photo by Robert Greene)

PC: We’ve been talking around this notion of moral compasses and ethical practices, so I’d like to talk about those who are in positions of decision-making power. In the report, you talk about the idea of vetting moral stances and biases of those in power, which you must admit is a fairly tricky proposition since, for some, this might fall outside of anything they care to think about when their job is to assess materials in order to make good decisions. Some work quite autonomously without this notion of the kind of supervision you refer to, Rebecca. Perhaps the “harm” caused is unwitting or considered part of the job since much of it can consist of rejection without any possibility of finding out why a project is rejected for funds or other kinds of support. What are the challenges of tapping into the ways in which those things could be revealed to someone not able or willing to admit that they engage in abusive or harmful practices?

MP: As you’re speaking, I’m thinking that I have such an interesting relationship with the word safety. We don’t have the option of always making everything safe or else we wouldn’t be able to make art, really, or create a healing opportunity. Healing is an incredibly brave act, not a safe one. I remember writing in my journal after my first meeting with Robert about how to find a balance between containment and provocation. I viewed my job as holding both of those things. I wanted to create a safe container to an extent, but I was also there to provoke new directions to enhance the process, one that had a bigger goal and meaning to the lives of the people involved. My job, in part, was keeping everything on the rails and providing checks and balances as a third party. I wasn’t exactly crew nor was I a subject. 

A focus group I was part of recently was exploring these issues of mental health and documentary filmmaking. NORC [National Opinion Research Center] at University of Chicago is a facility that’s been studying this. It was formed directly because of a request from the film industry to study mental health impacts on documentary subjects and I had a foot in both camps. We were speaking about that balance of being a subject as well as someone to keep things on the rails, and in doing that allow people to have a sense of autonomy, for the subjects to be able to explore brave directions that were not, in fact, particularly safe. The important thing was that they felt they were in control. It was less important that I impose my own set of guidelines as to what I felt was going to be safe.

Robert and I are both fairly subversive people. Being subversive against a system can be challenging abuse that we know exists within the hierarchy of filmmaking. But it can also be subversive against the therapeutic systems that exist, which are also incredibly problematic in terms of the gatekeeping that exists within them. Going by the book in order to keep everything as safe as possible wasn’t really the answer. I know from the work I’ve done how powerful stepping into roles can be. I understand what that’s doing psychologically. If I’m there as a consultant with the ear of everyone involved to point out these things and hopefully shed light on what people can expect throughout a very brave and very scary process, often I felt that was the best thing I could do – to help prepare them, to create awareness of what might come up for them.

I’m circling back to this question of control and abuses because inherently a lot of this work is exploitive and abusive. In the pursuit of making a product, people can be given a lot of power without checks and balances. There are opportunities to become abusive, whether it’s intentional or not. In Procession, the issue was about people with an inordinate amount of power, with no checks and balances. The clergy within the structure of the Catholic church is handed so much power with barely any oversight. It’s a breeding ground for abuse; that’s why it’s so prevalent. That is also true in the entertainment industry. We were taking a very close look at the dynamics of power and control the whole time we were making the film. We were very intentional in splitting up these roles, constantly asking lots of questions about what people are feeling and what would benefit them the most going forward. Robert also had to very intentionally be checking himself by limiting within this structure how his own power was going to manifest. It would have been entirely possible for him to have unchecked power.

I have learned since the film came out that there is an emerging field called mental health coordination. I agree with Rebecca in that I don’t think a therapist is needed on every film set. I think drama therapists are more useful on fiction films and films like Procession, which is more of a hybrid. Supervision and toolkits and seminars with a mental health focus for filmmakers is primarily where the conversation needs to be. I was really excited to learn that a standardized field around that is being created. But then the subversive part of me feels like this could be yet another form of gatekeeping down to the certification to perform this kind of work. My feelings are mixed but I do think it’s good that we’re recognizing the need for some kind of supervision or consultation, which is what mental health coordinators are going to be doing. Many come from the field of intimacy coordination and from drama therapy. 

RD: One of the ways in which we can work towards giving everyone the appropriate amount of agency is acknowledging the different roles people play and where the power lies. But it’s not really our job to necessarily encounter the gatekeepers and solve those power imbalances. It’s about bringing awareness to the different roles we each have in a process. But funders and other organizations have an inherent power dynamic that can be broken down with the right open and honest conversation. There shouldn’t be such fear around giving participants agency and autonomy in their own narrative because the filmmaker needs to be in creative control. What we know is that when you share the power and make the process as equal as you possibly can, then the depth of connection is so much greater. How can we help people let go of that fear of losing their place in the hierarchy? 

Rebecca Day at BFI Future Talks, 2024

PC: However fragile a filmmaker or creator can feel, they have voluntarily stepped into a practice that does involve a plethora of complex issues and quandaries. To me, that’s an important part of the work of being an artist. Looking at this as a movement, it does have to make sense to all parties involved. What are some overriding concerns about how this can be misconstrued?

RD: My concern is that it just becomes a tick-box exercise or a plaster for a much deeper problem. It’s wonderful to see the roles that Monica’s described springing up. In the UK, they’re called well-being facilitators and that’s very useful. But the place we don’t want to get to is viewing it as just another part of due diligence. Sometimes, I think it will be possible on some projects to have these things in place. I think we need to think very carefully about who we choose to work with, including who funds your project, which organization comes on board. Every relationship that is welcomed onto a project should be carefully thought out in order to create the team around you that supports that. To your point, yes, we’re all choosing to do this work. It comes with a sense of urgency, doesn’t it? But we do all have a choice about putting ourselves in these positions. That’s a really crucial thing to keep in mind. And there is a lot of joy in stretching ourselves beyond where we think we can go.
MP: Like Rebecca, my concern, too, is that people will see it as just another box to check. My main concern is that directors, with any amount of support, will feel this is a form of babysitting their creative process. In every industry, you have abusers who might view this as a grab for control. Even if they have to check the boxes, it doesn’t mean real change, necessarily. That’s unavoidable to a certain extent. But there are so many projects where it will make a difference. We shouldn’t look for changes across the board because changes across the board will inevitably foster a standardized way of doing things. A shift in mindset in filmmaking spaces is completely possible because as a movement, it’s already taking hold, which I’m really happy to see. However, I do worry a bit that we may lose sight of how much diversity exists in the film world. For every person that doesn’t choose to listen, there will be another person who will. We do want to infuse these creative processes with practices that are not only safer, but braver. It’s not just about healing or closing a chapter. There are so many ways that the creative process is helpful. People have known that since the beginning of time – that the arts are inherently helpful. Sometimes it looks like mental health; sometimes it looks like growth. We need intentionality behind it all so we can recognize those areas, and so that the art doesn’t get lost in the logistics of making it.

Pamela Cohn is a Helsinki-based critic, writer, film & video curator, story structure consultant, and festival moderator. She’s the author of Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers(OR Books, New York & London, 2020), and co-producer and host of The Lucid Dreaming Podcast: Conversations on Cinema, Art & Moving Image http://www.pamelacohn.com/