SXSW Review: THE WORK Is A Humanist Masterpiece

An extremely emotional journey through the thoughts and fears of Folsom Prison inmates.

Like many documentaries, The Work offers a candid look at a world we rarely get to see. In this case we enter Folsom Prison and witness a four-day group therapy session between participating level-four inmates and three volunteering civilians.

The film is simple on its surface. It has to be. Once things really start, there is no room for anything else. It takes place all in one room and keeps its scope pointed directly at one therapy group in particular. We frequently hear wailing and screams from other groups sharing the room, but the camera never looks away from its chosen subjects. We are meant to concentrate on what’s in front of us rather than what we can hear, just as those we watch must do.

This is not the only time The Work unites audience and subject. The film’s opening moments seem typical. We learn a little bit about the three civilians involved along with some expository facts about the program we will witness. As this happens, we think we have an idea what to expect. So do the three volunteers. Very quickly, however, the discovery is made both on screen and off that this will be a wholly unique experience that throws any preconceptions out the window.

The idea behind this particular therapy is simply to allow these inmates a safe space to explore their feelings. But think about how difficult that is. Many of these men are murderers. They live every day in a prison yard filled with other hard men with violent tempers. To show emotion, to appear soft in any way could be a death sentence. Not just in prison, either. They’ve lived their whole lives like this. To ask someone with that survival instinct to discuss their own pain, to goad them to take that pain to whatever physical reaction needs to get expressed, while standing before a circle of other inmates is asking them to take a massive risk.

But they are in a safe space, and one by one they explore these feelings. It’s ugly and violent. Crying is just the beginning. These breakthroughs usually require an explosion of anger and physical lashing out. When this happens the group closes in, gives the man something strong to push back against until he’s confronted his pain long enough to explore it, learn about it and ultimately exorcise it.

It’s all so profoundly emotional. Near the beginning of the film we hear one inmate describe the act of sawing a live man almost in half. Later he breaks our hearts as he describes betraying his mom to be the son he thought his father needed, and how much he regrets making that choice as a child. You suddenly realize that while these men have done evil things, they are not evil people. They are afraid and insecure and need love just like anyone else.

The civilians take part in these exercises as well, and there is never any competitive shame from the inmates. Pain is pain, and even the best of us fear confronting it. Perhaps the most moving aspect of The Work is how much more the inmates and this experience seems to help these non-inmates, all of whom walk into the thing thinking they’re more or less fine, certainly not troubled on the same level of a convicted murderer. But they are wrong.

There are just so many amazing scenes, so many true looks at raw human emotion you almost feel guilty overseeing. At one point an inmate admits to being close to suicide because his son no longer visits him. A fellow inmate gets in his face, begging him for three months of work together before he goes through with it. The man agrees and when the two hug their microphones smash into their shirts. Through the distortion, what they say can hardly be heard. But their heartbeats are loud and clear, fast at first, and then slower as the hug continues. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

This is a moving, frequently heartbreaking film, but (as pretentious as this sounds) it puts you in touch with your humanity in a very rare way. It’s well up there with The Act of Killing as one of the most surprising, novel and compelling documentaries I’ve ever seen. But unlike that harrowing film, I can see enjoying repeat viewings of The Work. The film takes you through an unforgettable journey for sure, but it is ultimately an optimistic one. These men do not get fixed. But they gain tools. For some, it won’t be enough. For others, it might. That’s the beauty of the title. What we see is just the beginning. The real work happens after the movie ends.