Documentary Review | The Work is More Compelling than any Prison Drama

The Work is a ‘prison film’, but not as you know it, and yet it is perhaps the most emotionally draining the genre has ever seen. This is an impressive feat for a talk heavy documentary set entirely in one room. There are no snitches getting what’s coming to them, no gratuitous scenes that minimise rape, no hyper violent gang hits, no overblown riots with men so ridiculously quick to anger they could play the Hulk, but The Work is more engrossing than almost all of the films that perpetuate those now caricature stereotypes of life ‘inside’.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#F42A2A” class=”” size=”17"]The resulting drama is a fascinating exercise in emotional exorcism.  [/[/perfectpullquote]em>

Set in Folsom prison, a group of men from the outside participate in a group therapy session with convicts, many of them violent offenders. In the space of four days, prisoners and free men alike engage in a weekend of deeply intimate conversations in which they reveal their darkest fears, dangerously repressed memories, and their most complex feelings. The resulting drama is a fascinating exercise in emotional exorcism.

The approach is simple yet startling effective for both the viewer and participant. The men are divided into groups, as they sit in circles of chairs and one by one, through a variety of methods the trained facilitators allow the burly men to open up. It’s not long before we see testosterone fuelled and muscled bound prisoners sobbing uncontrollably or being consoled  by men who’ve never met them before. This is a documentary that understands that prisons are, first and foremost, filled with human beings.


To say that The Work is character driven is an understatement. Characters are the life-force of the film. Ironically, or perhaps understandably, its those on the inside that seem better equipped to deal with those repressed emotions, but in the end almost all the main players dramatically unload at some point. Many of these men  have carried out disturbing crimes and have spent decades behind bars but by the end of the 80 or so minutes, what it means to be hardened criminal won’t be such an easy question to answer as the line between violent offender and law abiding citizen is thinner than one might have first assumed.

[p[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#F42A2A” class=”” size=”18"]’s not long before the fragile nature of Brian’s ego is laid bare for all to see as he suddenly comes undone in a rage of self-loathing.[/pe[/perfectpullquote]>

In fact the most seemingly unbalanced of those involved is a non-inmate named Brian, who attended the programme due to being in depressive state of ‘discontent’, as he puts it. He seems, at first, well rounded but his unnecessary and cutting verbal put downs of those willing to open up suggest a darker psychological mindscape, as well as providing the film’s most taut  sequences. Veteran inmates of the programme pick up on the kinks in the armour, “we got a live one” they peg instantly. It’s not long before the fragile nature of Brian’s ego is laid bare for all to see as he suddenly comes undone in a rage of self-loathing. When we look at the incinerated men we can see the results of what can happen when you leave sentiments like this unchecked.

Of course the convicts have plenty of their own crosses to bare. There’s Darkcloud, a heavy set block of a native American man who had tried to kill a man by cutting him in half and resents following the path his father set him on. There’s Kiki, an Asian former gang leader who wants to use the sessions to mourn for a sister he never felt he adequately grieved for. The sequences in which they find themselves at breaking point, with their fellow men standing up around and providing emotional support are charged with an energy fuelled in equal parts masculinity and vulnerability.

Not all those who avail of the group therapy are there to reveal something about themselves. Some simply enjoy the process of being there for others. A young black man named Dante, faced with the prospect of decades more behind bars and never seeing his son again, admits he’s close to suicide. Another inmate walks over to him, makes him stand up and tells him that’s the cowards way out and as they hug, the two mikes that the men are wearing captured the sound of not only the other man’s heartbeat but of the human connection made. In one image, the communal sense of humanity of the programme Is encapsulated.

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