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'The Work': Sheffield Review

A four-day group therapy session within Folsom Prison proves transformational for all involved

Dirs: Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous. US, 2017, 87mins.

An acutely-observed account of a four-day group therapy session within the walls of Folsom Prison constantly touches raw nerves in The Work. This intimate, intensely emotional documentary pushes against restrictive definitions of masculinity and addresses wider issues of punishment and rehabilitation within the penal system. The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW should continue to travel extensively following its European premiere at Sheffield.

The Work powerfully underlines the ability of documentary to transport the viewer to places they would otherwise never encounter

Folsom State Prison in Sacramento, California is a maximum security prison populated by men convicted of violent, often drug or gang-related crimes. Many prisoners face the certainty that they will never see the outside world again. 

Twice a year members of the public are invited to join prisoners for four days of intensive group therapy. After a minimal amount of introduction, director Jarius McLeary and co-director Gethin Aldius plunge straight into the experience. The focus is on three of the incomers; bartender Charles, museum associate Chris and teacher’s assistant Brian. Initially, it seems that the prisoners are more open to the process and much clearer about what they hope to achieve. “I want to be vulnerable and I don’t want to be scared to be vulnerable,“ claims Native American Dark Cloud. “I want to stop being my own worst enemy,” vows Vegas.

Structured around the events of each day, The Work feels raw and unfiltered. Jarius McLeary and his unit seem to have won the complete trust of everyone involved. The viewer is placed right in the heart of the group process and allowed to feel more of a participant than a detached observer. The camera never flinches or retreats, there is no sense of anyone having been rendered self-conscious by its presence and the film never feels voyeuristic.

Over the four days, the therapy room becomes a safe space in which all the men are able to confront their demons and bare their souls. We hear tales of absent fathers, low self-esteem, the burden of lives lived in the crippling belief that they will never be good enough. It is like eavesdropping on a confessional. There are moments of catharsis expressed in primal screams of rage and floods of bitter tears. We learn, over and over, that real men do cry. Even the most sceptical on-lookers become true believers as individual prisoners give themselves permission to grieve, confront betrayals, acknowledge the reality of their situation or are encouraged to set aside suicidal thoughts. 

Chris seems the most detached of the outsiders and wary of the whole process, but even he eventually confronts the lifelong disappointments of a relationship with his father that has left him feeling inadequate.

Closing titles inform us that 40 convicts have been released after participating in the programme and none of them have returned to prison. Often gruelling, always compelling, The Work powerfully underlines the ability of documentary to transport the viewer to places they would otherwise never encounter. There are brief scenes of tranquility as we witness a sun rise or chickens feeding as a new day dawns. It is the only reminder of the outside world and the only respite from the claustrophobic confines of Folsom.

Production company: Blanketfort Media

International sales: Dogwoof Global ana@dogwoof.com

Producers: Alice Henty, Jairus McLeary, Angela Sostre, Miles McLeary, Eon McLeary

Executive producers: Jairus McLeary, Rob Allbee, Gethin Aldous

Cinematography: Arturo Santamaria

Editor: Amy Foote

Music: Adrian Miller

Featuring: Charles Tale Jr, Chris Renton, Brian Nazarof, Dark Cloud

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