Director: Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous
Cast: Charles, Chris, Brian
Watch The Work online in the UK: BBC iPlayer / iTunes
Co-directed by Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous, this award-winning documentary takes an intimate look at an unconventional group therapy program within the walls of Folsom State Prison in California. The sessions themselves are incredibly intense and the fly-on-the-wall approach ensures the audience is fully immersed throughout, with an end result that’s nothing short of breath-taking.
As the film opens, on-screen captions explain that, twice a year, California’s Folsom State Prison invites a small group of outsiders to enter its gates, as part of a four-day program of intensive group therapy, alongside various prison inmates, none of whom are new to the program. As a bus drops off a group of civilians outside the prison, we quickly meet three of the volunteers: soft-spoken museum associate Chris (who looks and sounds a bit like Steve Zahn), who says he’s hoping the experience might give him some direction; tightly-wound teacher’s assistant Brian, who admits he’s attracted to the risk element (he’s immediately pegged as “a live wire” by the prisoners); and older, bartender Charles, who is acutely aware of his there-but-for-the-grace-of-God situation, since his own father was locked up for many years.
After the introductions, the majority of the film takes place within the prison chapel, where the session is held. Initially, there’s nothing unusual about the therapy – the men sit in a circle and share their problems with the group, aware that it’s a safe space, with all affiliations left outside the door. However, it isn’t long before the first breakthrough, as one of the prisoners says he wants to be able to cry, to grieve for his dead sister, and as he’s coaxed to let everything out, he becomes physical, causing the men to crush together to keep him still, but remaining fully supportive throughout.
The intense physicality of the moment clearly takes the volunteers by surprise just as much as it does the audience, and there’s clearly a certain amount of scepticism among them, with Chris, in particular, positioned as something close to an audience substitute, as he sits in silence for the first couple of days. However, the session quickly becomes even more intense, as a deliberately confrontational remark from “live wire” Brian leads to him confronting his own issues, resulting in a similar pile-on.
What’s remarkable is the way in which both the film and the session achieve their very real breakthroughs, smashing through scepticism for audience and participant alike. There may well be a sneaking suspicion that Brian is grand-standing for the cameras, but his tears are undeniably real.
Needless to say, the film couldn’t take place without an extraordinary level of trust on behalf of the subjects, so it comes as no surprise to learn that McLeary has been involved with the program for the last decade (after going through it as a participant), and co-director Aldous also volunteered for the program, prior to the start of filming.
What’s less clear – and left frustratingly unaddressed – is the question of the application and selection process for civilian participants, and, beyond that, the selection process for the film itself, especially given that the Circle of Trust is such a vital component of group therapy sessions. However, the results of the session are nonetheless both astonishing and significant, for everyone involved. To that end, it’s heartening to learn, via a closing caption, of the program’s 100 per cent success rate in terms of recidivism, suggesting that the sessions should perhaps be rolled out to other prisons. At the very least, the film should be screened to the public as widely as possible.
The Work is on BBC iPlayer until 24th November.