Powerful documentary about folsom prison group therapy

Manon Girault on Jairus McLeary’s & Gethin Aldous’s ‘The Work’ (2017)

THE WORK DEFIES THE TYPECAST PORTRAYAL of the male prison inmate, often too hypermasculinised and merely reduced to his physical strength. Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’ co-production, The Work, premiered at the 2017 edition of the SXSW Film Festival, where it had been awarded the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature. Since, the film has been screened in Seattle, Sheffield and, most recently, Copenhagen.

The documentary distinctively sheds light on the convicts as agents of catharsis and empathy. By removing their masks – often embodied by their performative attire — the men comes to terms with the necessity in treating their emotional disorders. The feature’s title — The Work — makes clear their admirable mental (and physical) strength in the task of wrestling their inner-demons and supporting other participants as any brother would.

The Work follows three free men from the outside – civilians – during their participation in a group therapy sessions usually exclusive for inmates of Folsom Prison. Each initially admits to being insecure about the intention of their contribution to this four-day program. However, little by little, and to their own surprise, Brian, Chris and Charles end up baring their chests and revealing their many scars like the inmates. This revelatory process invites viewers to question whether long or life-term sentences are ethical or pragmatic solutions for men to reassess their mistakes, learn to forgive and accept the nature of their punishment.

The Work wisely focuses only on one group amongst the session’s many in order to highlight the anthropocentric and humanistic strengths and flaws of ordinary human beings. The documentary films its subjects with great respect, never exploiting nor downgrading any of their problems and reactions. Likewise, spectators are not quick to make assumptions and easy judgement. The camera observes in an intimate, yet non-invasive manner, alternating between personalised eye-level shots and over-the-shoulder ones. From above, we capture the formation of a tight circle, as the men grip on to one and other, proof of their equal trust and wish to lead a pacifist fight against the threats posed by the brutal prison walls. By opening up to the any man, the circle gains in strength. The camera is also responsible in keeping this circle closely knit, their shared memory intact. It marks word for the convicts’ non-necessity to feel the need to perform as a brutish entity.

Indeed, the men respect and expect to be respected by their brothers of the ‘fatherless men,’ as a facilitator affirms in the film. The domino-effect of the participants slowly opening up creates a build-up in the narrative yet avoiding any sense of dramatisation. Here, tension stems from the inner: the stares and the voices, openers to their painful pasts. They acknowledge the beauty of emotions and of energy release.

The Work is arresting piece of cinematic reportage. Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’ feature is a gripping exploration of the male psyche and a real look at manhood lived behind bars. By indirectly revealing the treatment of inmates as somewhat in-integral human beings, the documentary closes on a desire for its viewers to reconsider the socio-politics of mass incarceration in the United States. The all-round sense of support brought by the men seems idealistic in our time of engraved regulations, however the result being so relatable justifies its ability to be implemented. The directors have preferred not to mention anything other than what centres on the characters, to focus on the flesh and blood, hoping to inspire other prisons to adopt such therapy programs.

Manon Girault

By Manon Girault

Manon Girault is a freelance writer, producer, and documentary filmmaker. She graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King’s College London and Ethnographic & Documentary Film (MA) from University College London.