The Work is an intensely raw, emotional tour de force set inside California’s notorious Folsom State Prison. Filming within a single room, director Jairus McLeary follows the facility’s rehabilitation program – courtesy of The Inside Circle Foundation. The project documents a four-day group therapy retreat between three volunteers from outside and the jail’s convicts. These prisoners are mostly violent offenders with one having attempted to literally cut a man in half, and others being former gang members. The Work is hard-hitting and gritty, with its beauty deriving from the fact that it looks past the sensationalism and towards the emotional redemption of all individuals involved.
This is McLeary’s first film, and he has crafted a remarkably intimate and moving portrait. Instead of opting for excessive narration and exposition, the director prefers an immersive approach. The cameras stand back as the group therapy session unfolds and lets the prisoners and volunteers lead the story. Stepping aside and observing the two groups vent and face their problems makes for highly effective and engaging viewing. For example, Brian, a volunteer, explores his anger issues, and convicts Dark Cloud and Bharataji discuss how betrayal has impacted their lives. Without condoning the past mistakes of the convicts, The Work expertly captures the deep sorrow and pain that has affected them.
The film’s focus on the therapy, rather than a scandalised portrayal of incarceration, is deeply satisfying and differentiates it from other prison documentaries. Folsom’s therapy sessions are cathartic and powerful releases that resemble primal therapy. Some of the convicts and volunteers must be physically restrained as they relive past traumas and shame. They scream, sob, collapse into foetal positions and a physical altercation almost breaks out twice, but they also nurture and cradle each other during these moments. The prisoners listen to each other and guide each other towards confronting their demons and moving towards a morally just and healthy life. It’s brutally honest, but also genuinely gripping and moving.
A tremendous documentary, The Work is a superb debut for Jairus McLeary. Even if it wades into grief and trauma, there refreshingly is a brighter side. The film claims that over a 17-year period 40 convicts have been released from prison after attending this programme and, so far, none have returned to jail.
The Work is released nationwide on 8th September 2017.
Watch the trailer for The Work here: