Locked away in Folsom State Prison, the tough, tattooed men seen in “The Work” are serving heavy-duty time, in some cases multiple life sentences, for violent crimes. Most will never be released, and yet, as we discover via Jairus McLeary’s remarkable vérité portrait — winner of the SXSW documentary competition — a handful of these maximum-security inmates are committed to mastering their tempers, getting in touch with their emotions, and making an effort to help outsiders do the same.
Pushing its cameras past the gates, past the guards, and even past the imaginary emotional barriers its subjects erected years ago in order to deal with their personal demons, “The Work” brings audiences into the “Inside Circle,” an intensive four-day group therapy program where society’s worst offenders interact with individuals from the free world. It’s not hard to imagine the benefit messed-up convicts might see in addressing their issues; less clear, however, is whatever strange impulse might draw free men to participate. This isn’t a standard social work situation where volunteers do it for the prisoners’ benefit. No, the non-incarcerated participants have issues of their own to confront as well, and by the end of the film, it’s clear that these outsiders actually stand to gain the most from the dynamic.
McLeary first observed the Inner Circle Foundation’s “work” — as the prisoners call the exorcism-like process by which they expel rage from within — in 2004, and his continued involvement with the program over the subsequent decade makes him uniquely suited to document what they do. (Likewise, co-director Gethin Aldous agreed to volunteer with the organization before filming began.) That dedication earned the trust of their thick-skinned subjects, who demand nothing more than to be seen with a complete lack of judgment. By participating in the film, they’re opening up not only to the people in the room, but to audiences everywhere: It is perhaps the bravest thing any of them will ever do — and that applies just as strongly to their guests.
As for the group therapy process itself, there’s always a risk when outsiders observe people pitched into intense soul-bearing sessions of which they aren’t directly a part. Like watching footage of snake healers or an evangelical tent revival, it’s easy to feel left out — except that McLeary’s cameras seem to penetrate that natural buffer, offering us a seat in the circle, or else directly over the shoulders of those involved. When the participants convulse and cry, the film’s empathetic connection is so direct and so strong, audiences may be driven to weep as well.
Because fireworks seem to occurring at practically all times (from the collective impact of a freight-train-like chant to outbursts from other groups working in the same room), the film focuses on six people, three of them convicts, the other three outsiders, tracking their progress over the four-day event. Whether truly representative of what went down or shaped somewhat by editor Amy Foote, the resulting footage gives the impression of six individual arcs: characters who began the event in one place and measurably evolved over the course of the “work.”
At the end of Day One, outsider Chris (a seemingly mild-mannered museum worker hoping to address a certain lack of direction in his own life) candidly says, “I didn’t come here looking to cry, and I don’t want to feel like I’m letting them down if I don’t” — a sentiment that group-therapy skeptics should find easily relatable. But sure enough, by Day Four, even he is having the breakdown he didn’t think possible, leveraging the connection forged with these hard-boiled strangers to confront the ways his father made him feel inadequate. “The Work’s” power comes in watching how well the prisoners (many of whom have been through the program multiple times before) adapt to helping him through this personal catharsis.
When someone begins a new thought with the word “but,” another jumps in with a therapy-trained insight: “And, not but,” he says. “But takes away everything that has come before.” Say what you will about prison’s capacity to reform, but this documentary makes clear that in its own special way, the “work” is working.