Some of the finest, most commanding documentaries I’ve witnessed are the ones that take you somewhere you haven’t been before, and there’s no doubt that Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’s The Work took me away to those places. In truth, as it’s the only way to be with The Work, it’s almost arbitrary to break it down and offer a rating because this on is all about the experience, and what an incomparable one at that.
Filmed inside the walls of Folsom Prison in California, directors McLeary and Aldous introduce us to three men from the outside, or the ‘every day’, who’ve volunteered to take part in a four-day therapy retreat with convicts from the jail. While this highlights a progressive course of rehabilitation for the prisoners, and let’s remembers the USA incarcerates more people than any other in the world with around 716 per 100,000 of behind bars, it also becomes a refuge, and escape, for the three people who’ve gone inside with astonishing results.
Our three ‘outsiders’ we encounter all end up sharing their stories of who they are and reasons they’ve got involved. What you don’t expect is the sheer intimate intensity of events from every side or the honesty you witness as the masks slip across the group of those within the ‘circle’. This isn’t your standard group therapy; this becomes an exorcism of metaphorical demons that have haunted people’s entire existence to this point. It’s impossible for it not to make you think, and seriously consider, everything in our day-to-day lives, what we consider to simple judgments and the reasons why people become who they are.
Whilst watching The Work I made an array of notes to remember important moments but this time all it did was come up with questions and a genuine desire to discuss the questions that are constantly raised throughout. When you watch people who ‘could be you’ and in a very real scenario, alongside no noticeable directorial invasion, you’d have to be pretty lost yourself not feel what they’re feeling or, at least, react to what you’re watching on-screen.
The three we follow all bring their moment of deep reality to the fore but it’s specifically Chris and Brian who stuck with me. Very early on Brian admits he’s judging the people telling him their truths but it backfires because they question him and his intentions within his own conclusions. The result is an intense scene where he breaks down and ends up being held down by 7-8 convicts while he literally screams and shouts his internal anger away. It’s brutal but necessary. Chris takes a few days before his guard is beaten down by the stories he listens to and finally… he comes back to authenticity.
The most interesting point is how we think we’re going to judge the prisoners but it’s the people ‘like us’ who have the bigger issues. It undoubtedly offers up the need for a huge discussion about rehabilitation and how it can be effectively implemented for everyone’s benefit. The Work asks important questions about whether grief is about loss of the self or someone, whether judging people is your misguided self-disappointment and, positively, shows us how we can help others to move forwards when they need us the most.
Alongside the spiritual nature, it seems rational to summarise the film with a strong moment as one convict tries to convince another that he doesn’t need to take his own life. While they hug and bond, their mics pick up on a deep, speeding heartbeat that slowly begins to settle and it becomes an important reminder of the reality we’re watching; we’re all people underneath and we’re all fighting to find our place in the world. Powerful isn’t a strong enough word for The Work, it’s utterly overwhelming and, quite equally, an exceptional insight.
The Work opens in UK cinemas on 8 September with the London Premiere, with director Q&A, at Picturehouse Central on 4 September.
Book UK tickets: theworkmovie.com/tickets
Book Picturehouse Central: picturehouses.com/PicturehouseCentral/london-premiere-the-work