‘The Work’ review – An Intimate and Honest Exposé of Life Behind Bars


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In ‘The Work’, documentary filmmakers Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous explore the process of real and raw rehabilitation in Folsom prison, as three men from the outside sit in on an intensive four-day therapy session with the inmates. Alongside ex-gang members, men convicted of theft and murder, the groups dig into dealing with previous offences, how to cope with mental health behind bars and what it means to be a man. Ella Kemp reviews.

It’s difficult to imagine what every waking moment behind bars feels like. Reflected in everyday fears of danger, failure and restraint, the lives of convicts slip between our fingers once the crime has been sufficiently sensationalised in headlines and online. After that, it’s soon forgotten by all those who were once so fascinated. In a kind of opposite dimension to the “grass is always greener” wishful unawareness, the men and women in jail continue to deal with their past actions and very immediate thoughts and insecurities – on the outside, we just don’t hear about them anymore.

But in Folsom state prison, California, three men, all outsiders, sit in on an intensive four-day therapy session with the inmates. This process is called “the work”. In a raw, immediate documentary, filmmakers Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous frame the phenomenon in session. Ex-gang members and bartenders align in conversation, as insecurities spill out and judgement is blurred, only leaving the results of the work to show for it.

The film is a special, singular experience. It feels like creeping into depths of tensions that are usually kept under wraps or mythologised in order to cater to fictionalised tear-jerking needs. It strikes a rare balance in presenting a candid and naturalistic insight into the unexpected experience, while leaving the violent intensity of every emotion intact.

By the end of the four-day session, it’s difficult to remember who is on which side. As the outsiders are asking, telling, sharing worries and fears with inmates, during the work everyone is on the same side. The process is fascinating, in breaking down the facades that often uphold stereotypes of toxic masculinity: intimidation, a lack of emotion, fear, danger. But after a few questions, with the group leaders and all those involved striving for the same level of contentment, the men break down in a way that no prejudice could ever mask.

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“I just want to feel like me”, one man confesses. Another calmly explains how he had previously paralysed someone. One after another, the inmates share stories of their past and break down how they’re feeling about themselves now. It’s a unique liberty given to people who rarely get given a voice – and who most definitely never did, if it wasn’t worth a juicy headline. But in the documentary, every piece of information is treated with the same naked acceptance. Convictions and childhood trauma are considered as equally considerable factors allowing or inhibiting these men to live with themselves in peace.

Where examples of criminal activity or deep-rooted suffering could serve the heightened theatrics of (most) Hollywood dramas, here they are sewn into the process, no more a plot device than a necessary establishing point towards acceptance and healing. In an all-male prison, the participants of the work deal with the expectations and pressures they face to “be a man”— for their families, for society and for themselves.

Once the fears are laid out, catharsis begins. Men who were afraid to cry pierce the still monotony with lashing emotion, difficult to believe and impossible to try and contain. It’s a visceral experience to watch, as with no script or make-believe narrative to guide a story – it’s easy to watch in quasi-constant fear as to what will break next. Men convicted of theft and attempted murder, self-loathing men struggling with their own identity – they all come together to support each other and accept every flaw. Not as universal flaws, but all integral to each person and no less valid in the search for contentment in all of their lives.

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The therapy process marries unfiltered conversation with more creative rehabilitation techniques. One of the visiting participants, at first reluctant to look at his own struggles, ends up leading one of the most moving moments in the film, in a bid to reconnect and accept his relationship with his father. As the other participants use words and role play to dig into the real problems, the man finally comes to terms with his unhappiness. “I didn’t expect this shit”, one of the visitors admits towards the beginning. One of the inmates replies: “you wouldn’t have come if you did”.

Saying the words that friends and professionals want to but don’t always know how, the men taking part in the work offer a refreshing, should-be-obvious wisdom. Both on a professional and a personal level, it’s with this powerful degree of honesty and unabashed vulnerability that the road to healing can clear. And it’s only through films like this that new headlines can be written – helping those in prison, in the streets, and everywhere else where too much is left unsaid.


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