Film Review: The Work


Breaking literal and figurative barriers of freedom, and opening new channels for self-awareness and enlightenment, Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’ The Work is a rousing, arresting and ultimately cathartic call-to-arms for the power and value of rehabilitation.

Filmed over four exhausting, emotionally-devastating days, this documentary goes inside the walls of California’s Folsom State Prison and inside the minds of its inmates and selected members of the public who join together for an intensive group therapy session. It’s an extraordinary film; more an indictment of failed fatherhood than a condemnation of the criminals that form its core. Making no excuses for the acts committed by these men, The Work reveals the strength and frailty of the human spirit, the fine lines and indeed similarities between those on each side the barbed wire, and how the smallest of childhood betrayals leave deep-rooted scars.

Whatever their past, there is a deep sense of humanity in all present. “I want to be vulnerable. And I don’t want to be scared to be vulnerable.” So says Dark Cloud, a Native American inmate who – by his own frank admission – nearly cut another human being in half, such was the ferocity of his crime. Signs of weakness or outward displays of emotion are, generally speaking, challenging for some men and nowhere more so, one would imagine, than in a high security prison. Placed into teams of three – two inmates to one civilian – swiftly dispatched is the getting-to-know-you small talk and revelation of an array of gang activity and truly shocking crimes which has many of those incarcerated serving multiple life terms.

For the most part, these misdeeds, along with the segregation, rivalries and brutality of life in Folsom is left at the gym doors each morning; the focus here is on healing and redemption, not retribution. It is hard to imagine a ‘safe space’ inside such a facility but the four walls to which we are confined for the majority of The Work offer a sanctuary. It is testament to the work of director of photography Arturo Santamaria that this area never feels claustrophobic; an opening circular camera movement encompasses all present and will whip the melting pot of emotions into a steadily spiralling, but much needed, whirlpool of release. Personal space is most definitely invaded, but in doing so there is the requisite intrusion into emotional spaces that have been kept under lock and key for a lifetime. We sit on shoulders, look through gaps in heads and go in close on individuals when speaking, but the camera always pulls back to bring in the collective – this is a shared experience for all.

Though our focus lies primarily with one large group, there is a constant hubbub of conversation which rumbles in the background and truly chilling are the occasional cries of rage and wails of despair that echo through the space. The camera does not turn to capture these moments, and just as these men must project their minds outside the confines of this space, to the world outside, to a desperate hope for a future they may never have, our consciousness imagines what the others must be suffering. In spite of their crimes, our hearts bleed for these men. Their bravery in laying themselves bare and the compassion shown by The Work for its subjects resonates long after credits roll and the doors close.

The Work is in UK cinemas and On Demand from Friday.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens

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