Some documentaries leave you pensive, ruminating on the subject matter and the issues raised as you think to yourself, “Hmm, that was an interesting take.” Other documentaries leave you brain-bombed and stumbling around looking for a quiet, leafy shade tree to sit under while you stare at nothing for a few hours.
Guess which one “The Work” is.
This 2017 documentary is showing at the University of Southern Maine’s Luther Bonney Hall on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in a free screening hosted by Portland’s Space Gallery. There will be speakers from groups like the Maine Prisoners Advocacy Program, Maine Inside Out and the Jericho Circle Project, as well as state Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and others. The film, which showed at Space earlier this year, has been made available online at this point (topic.com/the-work), which might be considered a public service. But, as someone who watched “The Work” that way, I recommend you to see it with a group, and with a learned roster of experts afterward to talk you through some stuff.
First, the details. “The Work,” directed by Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous, is about a unique group encounter session at California’s Folsom Prison. Several times a year, the intensive, four-day program is made available to people from the outside who want to engage in a highly supervised but exceedingly hands-on facilitated group encounter with some of Folsom’s most hardened inmates. The rules state that all gang affiliations are left at the door to the cavernous chapel meeting room, while these men – prisoners, visitors and facilitators – bare their souls.
It might sound a lot like the “Scared Straight” program, subject of its own 1978 documentary, which sought to set wayward teens on the right track by basically locking them in with violent convicts who terrified them with tales of all the horrible things they would do to the kids if they didn’t get their act together. Except that “The Work” doesn’t treat its incarcerated men as monsters, or cautionary tales. Instead, the film steps back as this diverse mix of men (most of whom have done truly monstrous things) plunge themselves about as deeply into the abyss as any group of people I’ve ever seen. In one harrowing sequence among many, one inmate counsels a shuddering, suicidal co-prisoner, “Right there at the bottom where we hurt the most – that’s where the medicine is at.”
“The Work” is harsh medicine. As our entry point into this unseen, insular world, the film latches onto three outsiders who’ve signed up to put themselves into the program of the Inside Circle Foundation, which administers these sessions at prisons across California. There’s Charles, an open-faced black man who claims his biggest fear is to be incarcerated like his absent father was. Chris is a bearded portrait of slacker disengagement. And there’s Brian, a fit, shaven-headed teaching assistant who, at first, appears to approach his participation with tourist-like curiosity. As “The Work” takes these three – and us – through its four-day journey, each man reluctantly opens up to show the wounds that, the film posits, are also startlingly similar to those that landed the incarcerated participants in maximum security prison for, in some cases, the rest of their lives.
Watching “The Work” can be overwhelming, as the film and the program within it wastes no time showing how committed these men are to getting to the raw heart of things. A tattooed prisoner confessing his inability to grieve for his dead sister stands rigid while another locks eyes and promises him safety, their warring gang affiliations and prison-honed defenses finally crumbling into a wrenching catharsis as physical as it is devastating. A facilitator asks warily if he can touch the grieving prisoner, literally adjusting the man’s body to release the pain he’s holding back with every twitching muscle.
And that’s just the beginning.
The filmmakers behind “The Work” (all of whom went through the program themselves in preparation) remain unobtrusive, leaving the pain and rage these men have bottled up to explode again and again. Through this voyeuristic documentary, themes emerge. Absent, abusive or simply inadequate fathers resurface in almost every story, the various degrees of betrayal shown to have left disfiguring internal scars that landed some of these men in prison and some living their free lives in simmering, life-altering shame and resentment. Brian, the tourist, is revealed to be a clenched fist of toxic, macho self-regard and anger, nearly touching off a pair of explosive confrontations with convicted killers. His own catharsis comes in the form of a brutally physical laying-on of hands, touched off with a sudden eruption of sound that seems to come from somewhere frighteningly primal.
Nothing about “The Work” is easy. As a critic, it’s tempting to get carried away by the spectacle of watching these violent men (“I almost chopped a guy in half,” states a Native American gang member called Dark Cloud) bare their souls in the presence of others suffering from their own unimaginable torment. Focusing on the one smaller group in which its three outsiders take part, “The Work” is unnervingly punctuated by the spine-chilling, off-camera shrieks of others. But, for all the unexpected, tortured humanity on display, “The Work” raises unexamined questions.
The knowledge that filmmaker McLeary’s father, James – a psychologist with the demeanor of an aging bruiser – is the chief executive officer of the nonprofit Inside Circle Foundation introduces an element of self-promotion that the “The Work” never addresses. And the prisoners – all keenly aware of both the cameras and the watchful eye of prison officials – can’t help but know that their performance in the program will have bearing on any future parole decisions. That fact raises questions about a possible performative aspect to the inmates’ breakthroughs that centers most on Rick, an aging, rangy former member of a neo-Nazi gang whose front-and-center presence in nearly every encounter remains slippery throughout. (Consoling the frightened Brian after one such dust-up, Rick makes a coded racial statement that hints his white supremacist affiliations aren’t as far away as he’d have us believe.) Yet, there’s such a raw-nerve truthfulness vibrating through every word these men say that, other considerations aside, an unkillable flicker of hope gutters throughout that even men who’ve acted on the basest instincts inspired by toxic masculine rage can see themselves – and hope to overcome.
There’s nothing easy about “The Work.” I’m repeating that because it’s true, and because it’s how I’ve come to place my complicated response to such a thoroughly affecting, often confounding experience. There’s nothing easy about “The Work.” You should go see it.
“The Work” is showing at USM’s Luther Bonney Hall on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. The screening is free and open to the public. For more information, go to space538.org.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
PORTLAND SUMMER FILMS IN CONGRESS SQUARE PARK
Sunday: “Back To the Future.” Free outdoor screening of this still-irresistible 1985 time travel comedy-adventure sounds like a pretty perfect summer night in Maine.
Ends Thursday: “The Rider.” Frontier’s Independent Film Series continues with this drama about a young rodeo cowboy trying to cope with a life out of the saddle after an accident.