There are few places in the world more terrifying than prison. For most of us, it is an environment we will never have to experience first hand, but for those who are incarcerated, it is a community of division, hostility and persecution, with little opportunity for redemption or rehabilitation.
In The Work, court videographer Jairus McLeary and documentarian Gethin Aldous venture inside one of the most notorious correctional facilities of them all, Falsom Maximum Security Prison in California, to witness an extraordinary program of therapy and communication.
Over a four-day period, a selection of prisoners, many of them serving multiple life sentences for murder and gang-related crimes, come together for a special retreat and healing session. Leaving any gang affiliations, grudges or other prejudices at the door, these men unite in a shared desire to explore the darkest recesses of their own identities, in the hope of finding some degree of peace and self-reflection.
Added to the mix are a selection of civilians, who have volunteered to step into the convicts’ domain and share the experience with them. The film follows three such individuals as they pair up with prisoners from wildly different backgrounds and leap into the abyss together.
The diversity of the group is extraordinary, ranging from Arian Brotherhood bikers to Crips and Bloods, Native Americans and even Asian and Polynesians from gangs this reviewer had never even heard of. For some inmates, this would be their first such retreat, but for many others, it would be just the latest step in an ongoing effort to understand themselves and reach some kind of inner calm. The atmosphere is always tense, and fraught with judgement or imminent violence, but the desire from all in attendance to be vulnerable, to be exposed and to help each other get there is often times overwhelming, both for the viewer and the participants.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, many of the core problems these men are struggling with are the result of latent daddy issues buried way deep inside, and men growing up in broken homes or in the care of abusive parents. More surprising however, is how many of these men are brave enough to dive to the bottom of that emotional well, and how powerfully - and violently - those emotions manifest themselves right there in the room. The friction between the inmates and their civilian guests adds a thrilling extra dimension to these conversations, as they unwittingly stumble over unwritten lines of conduct and behaviour, triggering violent outbursts from men who just minutes before were openly discussing how they had killed people with their bare hands.
Witnessing these terrifying hulks of men - whose identity has been sculpted around anger, violence, hatred and instilling fear in everybody around them - disintegrate into quivering wrecks of tears and snot is a profoundly moving and humanising experience. Not only seeing these men reach a place of vulnerability and genuine self-realisation, but that those around them - regardless of their creed or colour - will be there for each other, offering compassion, love and support for their fellow human beings.
It gives us hope, and gives these men hope, that their lives are not over, that there is a chance of redemption, that they can allow themselves a second chance at life. In a climate where a vile strain of toxic masculinity has been given a soapbox and mouthpiece in the highest echelons of American society, The Work has never been timely. It shows all of us that being a man does not mean being violent, misogynistic, bigoted or abusive. It reminds us that there is an inherent goodness locked away inside each and every one of us, and if you are brave enough to own it, to embrace it, and to expose it to the rest of the world, it is not a sign of weakness, but one of strength, beauty and love to which we should all aspire. The Work is an essential viewing experience and a vital dissection of what it truly means to be a man.
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