The Work Invites You to Folsom Prison Group Therapy

Poster for 2017 Documentary, The Work

Written by Madison Drew Daniels
Originally posted on IndieEntertainmentMagazine.com
October 24, 2017

In a barebones chapel within Folsom Prison, free men and prisoners alike join together in a four-day intensive group therapy retreat. What they experience can only be described as raw, visceral, and utterly transformative. Filmmakers Jairus McLearly and Gethin Aldous truly have made something special that the world needs to see.
The Work is one of the most emotionally powerful films I have ever seen.

At the beginning of the session, the head facilitator leads the group of men in a chant. The energy builds and builds in the room as the call and response progresses.

Before any emotional walls are torn down, already the bonds of brotherhood begin knitting these men together. Leaving at the door all affiliations, preconceptions, and prejudice, these man come as vulnerably as they can to each other.

The Work wastes no time in showing the power of these sessions.

Within 20 minutes the efficacy of the therapy sessions lays itself bare. A man hardened by years of emotional repression expresses that he wants to feel the mournful loss of his sister. At the first signs of emotion, the man swallows his pain tries not to surrender. But a group member jumps up and says, “Take me there with you. I’m not going anywhere.”

Like poison being drawn from a wound, all the rage, pain, and trauma erupts in feral cries and convulsing sobs. It’s one part exorcism, one part group hug, as the man thrashes about in emotional agony. As the sobs die he is brought to his feet. “I’m right here,” his guide reaffirms.

The man is noticeably different– his posture, his face– you almost expect him to start floating.

As fly on the wall observer, this all can seem intrusive. I won’t lie, The Work is hard to watch at times. It could almost feel too intimate. But McLeary and Aldous don’t patronize or over sentimentalize with their work.

Filmed in verite style, there are no talking heads to over interpret what is being witnessed. There is no over constructed narrative or agenda that The Work is trying to push.

It isn’t trying to say something about the way American Justice or Prison systems are run. It isn’t trying to sell a certain type of therapy. It just is what it is– an intimate look at one of the most powerful and visceral transformational experiences of real men in real prison.

And this is where McLeary and Aldous should earn the highest praise. In order to earn to the trust of the inmates, both men have participated in the program themselves multiple times. They are probably the only directors qualified to make this film. Having the inside knowledge allows them the freedom to show it as transparently as possible.

Still from 2017's The Work.
In any other setting, this would look like a rough and tough group. Here in Folsom Prison, it is a circle of healing and growth.

I felt like I was there as a participant.

I didn’t seek to judge or interpret these men because McLeary and Aldous didn’t. I don’t often find myself crying from a movie, but I wept multiple times at witnessing the compassion these hardened men demonstrate for each other.

The Work proves that intimacy, compassion, and vulnerability are in the Zeitgeist. Mcleary and Aldous join in voice with the likes of Brene Brown and others who assert that love is the only way to make a difference in the world.

Nowhere is it more obviously and clearly demonstrated than in The Work that love and compassion work.

Check out the IMDB page while you’re at it.

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