When was the last time you cried? For many of the men we see in The Work, tears are something they can't afford; they're a sign of weakness, of vulnerability, of shame. These men have spent years building up walls around themselves and burying their emotions, which makes the moments in which those emotions break through to the surface so extraordinary to witness. Twice a year, The Inside Circle Foundation brings together inmates at the Folsom maximum-security prison for four days of group therapy, aimed at addressing their most deep-rooted issues and creating a safe space for them to open up. Any gang affiliations or prior beefs are left outside. As Rick, a former member of the Aryan brotherhood, says near the start of the film, “For four days, let’s be what we could be.”
The most intriguing aspect of this programme is that the prison also invites members of the public to join the prisoners in these sessions. The Work opens by introducing us to some of the civilians who have signed up for this project, and while it’s easy to see how the inmates could benefit from these rehabilitative exercises, the outsiders’ motivations for signing up are initially a little more vague. Some talk of wanting to find a sense of purpose in their lives, others are determined to confront their own fears, but all of them reveal more pain, anger and sorrow than they could have anticipated. Whether they are inmates at Folsom or free men, everyone we see in The Work appears to be imprisoned in the same way.
The Work’s co-directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous take a straightforward approach to the film. They focus on one working group in particular, with a few particularly string characters coming to the fore. Chief among them is Vegas, a tall black man with a calm demeanour and piercing eyes, who we see working with Kiki, a fellow inmate, when he admits he hasn’t cried in so many years he no longer knows how. Through gentle but persistent cajoling he pushes Kiki to locate those buried emotions and bring them to the surface, to the point where he collapses to the floor, wracked by sobs. Other participants fight against their emotions and have to be restrained as they scream and rage. One civilian in particular, a teacher’s assistant named Brian, emerges as a fascinating figure. He sits in detached judgement of the other men, testing their patience, until one of them calls him out on his behaviour and he reveals his own feelings of inadequacy rooted in his fixed ideas of what he should be as a man. The Work is a powerful portrait of the damage toxic masculinity can do.
Some of the men respond to comforting words, others need to be prodded more aggressively, and some require roleplaying sessions to let down their guard, with one man having an inmate play the role of his father so he can finally tell him things he has kept bottled up since childhood. The filmmakers get close to the men with their cameras, following the ebb and flow of each emotional journey, creating a real sense of intimacy, and the moments of connection and release that they capture have a visceral, shattering impact. As we focus on one group, we occasionally hear the sounds emanating from the other gatherings – laughter, tears, anger – but sometimes it's the quieter moments that really land. When Vegas tightly hugs a suicidal young inmate named Dante, having possibly just dissuaded him from taking his own life, a microphone picks up the rhythm of their beating hearts.
Towards the end of the film I couldn't help wondering, how do the lessons learned in these sessions figure in the inmates' day-to-day lives at Folsom? When they go back into the yard, doesn't the emotional armour go straight back up? The filmmakers don't give us any insight to the world outside of the chapel, aside from a closing statement informing us that of the forty men who have been released from jail having gone through this programme, none have yet returned, a fact that I found deeply heartening. The Work presents us with a group of angry, damaged men and allows us to watch as they open their hearts and souls, as they courageously strive to be better people. I found the film exhausting, heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring, and I hope each of these men walked out of that chapel after four days into a future that looked much brighter than their past.