Inside the interfaith chapel at the maximum security Folsom Prison, a different kind of blues. In The Work, co-directors Jarius McLeary and Gethin Aldous document Inner Circle, a four-day group therapy session attended by a cluster of inmates from miscellaneous backgrounds, joined by three members of the general public who volunteer to participate. Guards are not permitted in the room, prisonyard gang tensions and hypermacho posturing are left at the door, and facilitators, through a series of pseudo-spiritual exercises, encourage all participants to rake the deep chasms of consciousnesses for old wounds and betrayals. The filmed document of this painfully intense process is claustrophobic, messy; less assured than it is startling and mesmerising. For the first 15 minutes there’s an unease borne of earnestness that puts you on edge, partially with residual embarrassment at the tender confessions of the tattooed, beefed-up convicts — most imprisoned for drug and gang related crime, many for homicide — and partially with a sense that the whole enterprise could derail in a flash. By its end, you can hear a pin drop — it accelerates so rapidly in energy and severity and maintains its thudding heart rate with such relentlessness (in many ways thanks to Amy Foote’s sharp, decisive editing) that the film itself starts to feel cathartic: a treatise on manhood that works its way methodically through a crowd, curtailing laughs and giggles to silence.
We’re introduced to the prison’s visitors first, travelling in sparse open daylight by bus to the cramped, cinderblock prison where we spend the majority of the film’s 87 minutes. There’s Chris, a young, mild-mannered museum worker; Charles, a bartender and a fatherless father (a familial configuration that repeats constantly throughout the film); and Brian, the most complicated and intriguing of the three, a teacher’s assistant totally resistant to openness, his aggression and self-hatred barely skin deep. While they’re the film’s narrative access point into the prison, it’s really the unseen and unheard director Jarius McLeary, himself a program participant since 2002, who knows where to direct the multiple roving cameras. His distinct grasp of how Inner Circle is structured and the unique curative techniques involved works perfectly against the three visitors’ stunned amateurity. Perhaps most importantly, he knows that the visitors — fresh faces and clean records — are no less interesting as documentary subjects than their criminal counterparts. As we come to learn, it’s the visitors whose emotional issues run deeper, the consequences of those issues more buried, less obviously manifested.
The therapeutic techniques on offer are an effective blend of new age spiritualism, AA confessional and the kind of American evangelism that prompts fits and provokes tongue-speak from willing participants, who rev themselves up into a feverish furlough of mind. It begins in a wide circle, the candidates for reform repeating a mantra in booming unison, before it splits into multiple therapy circles, one of which becomes the focus of The Work. The visitors are asked to choose a pair of prisoners with whom they’ll work closely with over the following four days. After a brief, introductory conversation between Brian and the two men he has selected, he excuses himself for a glass of water. As he walks away they look at each other knowingly: “we’ve got one…a real live wire.” The Work consists of many of these recognitions, but rather than being concealed or ignored, participants are encouraged to lean into their emotional impulses, expose frayed nerve endings to a group of relative strangers and embrace whatever complicated rage and sadness might be dwelling underneath. The prisoners know what they’re there for and seem less reticent to jump straight in. Kiki, for example, has a clear aim: to mourn the death of his sister. As he talks through his trauma you can see the waves of sadness passing through him, each time instinctively pushing back as facilitators encourage him to open the floodgates. When it finally comes, his moment of grief is startling — a fit of physical aggression, a seething, superhuman display of rage and wrath that only subsides with the recognition of its futility, as tranquility and pride slowly replace pent-up aggression. These outbursts are frequently violent, as with Dark Cloud, who makes contact with Brian before the others can restrain him, necessitating the multiple-man pile on that ensues. It’s during these moments that Foote’s editing truly shines; faced with a glut of footage, she frequently cuts away from the most obviously fascinating action to observe the reactions of visitors. Most importantly, she and cinematographer Arturo Santamaria aren’t distracted by what’s happening elsewhere in the room. We can hear the neighbouring screams and cries, but our attention is firmly on the handful of subjects in stark, unforgiving focus.
Foote’s work aside, it’s less through filmic prowess than honest, open collaboration that McLeary and Aldous achieve The Work’s nervy intimacy. There’s no attempt to conceal the cameras and their operators — which are seen sporadically swinging in and out of frame — from the audience, and the handheld quality of the camerawork, at its worst distractingly shaky, does little to assuage the obvious fact that this production leans toward the lower end of the lo-fi spectrum, and that the people behind it aren’t aiming for the same slick quality that defines much of modern documentary filmmaking. These technical quibbles are either unimportant or, as in a few serendipitous moments, work in the film’s favour. In The Work’s most emotionally forceful and, frankly, devastating segment, Dante, a prisoner, talks to the group about his non-existent relationship with a son he knows nothing about. With a devastating absence of affect or emotion, he confesses to having contemplated suicide, a divulgence that strikes a nerve in Rick, a reformed white supremacist, who jumps to attention, attempting to talk Dante down from a psychological ledge. They embrace, their shirts drenched with tears and sweat, and for a moment you can hear their heartbeats loud and clear between the sobs and muffled pleas. A more polished film might call that an audio issue in urgent need of an expert’s mixing or an overlaid, overbearing score, but The Work’s foolhardy embrace of intimacy and authenticity over technical competency gifts it a miraculous moment.
The last of the men to let his guard down is Chris, who’s been conspicuously quiet, earlier remarking that he can’t deliver what the program — and the film — demands: an emotional epiphany, a breakthrough, tears. When he decides it’s time, the meek museum worker’s story doesn’t consist of the high-stakes familial drama we’ve come to expect. Sitting alone in a blanket fort as new age therapy music plays on a shoddy CD player, a minor tragedy from Chris’s childhood — his father, working on his car, refuses his son’s help — bubbles up. Chris’s outburst is relatively conservative, more a verbal working through than the kind of inarticulate paroxysm we’ve earlier witnessed, but it’s no less affecting. If it had occurred any earlier in the film, it might have been subject to the staggered sniggering borne of audience prejudice and presumption. But by its end the film has tutored us to listen. Rather than spruik for the specific program it documents (though ending title cards do indicate Inner Circle’s high success rate, with over 40 prisoners released thanks to its undertakings), The Work makes a better case for a wholesale deconstruction of shuttered, show-no-weakness masculinity. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, it warns: whatever your grievances, big or small, with the world and its strange inequalities, let them out before they manifest in ugliness. For some that ugliness is recidivism and its repetitive cycles. For others, like Brian, Charles and Chris, it manifests in more socially mandated forms: behavioural toxicity, self-hatred, the tendency to bottle up, to lash out, to unceasingly judge by standards we wouldn’t dare be held to. Encapsulating all this ugliness, The Work is a beautiful film, all the more so because of its willingness to step into the fear and find a raw, unremitting beauty in the witnessing of healing.