The documentary genre of filmmaking is a tough one when it comes to editing and choosing how to present a story. As an audience we know the whole truth is impossible to present and a director will always have to make tough decisions on which angles to take on a subject. Thankfully many ideas are strong enough to survive on their own merits despite the time and edit constraints and manage to thrive. One of the best examples in recent times is The Work, a documentary so emotionally powerful and affecting that it rarely needs any manipulation or editing. Here the words and truth speak for themselves and that’s where factual films work best.
Presented by Dogwoof and directed by Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous, this documentary feature throws us into Folsom Prison in California as we focus on a number of inmates, all of which are level four convicts, as they attend a four day course of intensive therapy alongside members of the public. At first we sit down with this unusual mishmash of people and we’re allowed to make our usual judgements based on image and undoubtedly a predictably low first impressions based on their crimes. Why wouldn’t we be unsure of these men? They’re all in prison for a reason and many fit our preconceived stereotypes whether it be skinheads or tattoos or even the colour of their skin. Many will have these men written off without knowing anything about them whatsoever.
What The Work aims to do is grab those preconceptions, roll them all up in a tight ball and throw them away. This is a fresh slate allowing the inmates to come forward and tell their stories. We’re here to understand why they’re here, to delve into who they truly are under the surface and what their journeys were to get to this terrible point in their lives. There’s a true honesty and emotional openness achieved by this therapy, with some breaking far easier than others, but it’s those that are challenged and tested that really get to you. The ones that have put up barriers for so long that they’ve almost forgotten who they were as a person. They live behind violence, fear, gangs, tattoos and any number of other things rather than allowing themselves to feel.
It’s easy to be sceptical about how useful any of this therapy really is and many of the prisoners themselves feel that too. Some cry on the first day and get judged by others, thinking that’ll never happen to them because it’s a sign of weakness. But even the biggest sceptic has a breaking point, something that caused him to make those mistakes along the way, and it’s those revelations that take longer to get to that are the most rewarding. Men that haven’t cried in years suddenly grieving for things they never allowed themselves to. There’s a whole new level of respect and appreciation developed between the inmates despite all their different backgrounds. They find unlikely common ground and use each other to lean on.
Most importantly it’s a film that feels genuine. There’s no miraculous forced fixing of a man who wants to kill himself because he can’t see his son. The fight there is simply to convince him to hold on for a bit longer. The fights are different from one man to the next but it’s all about taking that first step towards rehabilitation and not only becoming a better person but not giving up. It’s all too easy to succumb to the darker parts of life and believe that they’re all you can achieve now. The Work is full of hope and trying to show people that they can reach the light again no matter how long ago they stepped into the shadows.
It’s not an easy watch. It’s uncomfortable and painful and heartbreaking but also uplifting and rewarding. And no matter how challenging it is for the viewer that’s only a fraction of what the inmates go through with their own personal experiences. They know they’ve done wrong, they know how far they’ve fallen and yet they’ve been given this chance to perhaps start again. Something so many people have failed to give them before, including their own families. One room, one opportunity and it’s down to them to grab it with both hands and take it. Some do, pushing themselves over the edge and allowing themselves to be lifted back up by those around them. It’s something quite beautiful to witness.
Understandably some of the prisoners believe that they’re worthless and that the world has given up on them. By the end of The Work you feel like you don’t want to give up on them at all. That these are men that have made mistakes – big ones – but they all have their own personal issues and circumstances and it’s just lazy lumping them all together under one simple umbrella of evil. And that’s not something I ever expected to think or feel going into the documentary. The Work is by far one of the most thought provoking and emotional pieces of film I’ve ever seen and absolutely smashes all preconceptions. This is a must see for anyone and something I won’t forget for quite some time.
The Work is available on DVD now.
Dir: Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous
Cast: Brian, Charles, Vegas, Kiki, Dark Cloud, Chris.
Run time: 89 minutes