The thumping sounds of two hearts beating co-mingle, indistinguishable from one another, as two prisoners smother a lavalier microphone in their tight embrace. This is The Work. And the visceral scene is also the essence of Gethin Aldous and Jairus McLeary’s documentary “The Work,” which Tuesday night won the jury award for best documentary at South by Southwest.
The Work is shorthand for the intense therapeutic sessions between prisoners and civilians that happen twice a year at Folsom State Prison in California. A group of civilians buses into the prison each day for hours-long sessions that leave the participants sweaty, tearful, broken and, in at least one case, bloodied. This isn’t “Scared Straight,” where borderline civilians get brought into a prison to learn of what awaits on the other side should they keep slipping. The men on the outside in this instance choose to enter the prison. Some, like a bearded museum associate named Chris, are looking for direction in their rudderless lives, and others like Charles are trying to square something with their past. For some, their reasoning is unknown to the audience and possibly even to themselves until a moment when the pieces come together and past trauma is unleashed in a torrent, as is the case with an intense teacher’s assistant named Brian.
Under the close watch of mentors and facilitators, the prisoners act as guides, helping the outsiders and each other let down their guards and learn to be vulnerable. You can see through the windows of this cinder-block room to the yard, where just feet away prisoners go through their daily routines of socializing and exercise. But in this room, you can almost feel the discomfort and humidity as sweat drips from foreheads; there is something of an exorcism that takes place. The de facto patients, both prisoners and civilians, aren’t lying on comfortable couches and staring at the ceiling, able to slowly work their way through a psychoanalysis session. This is four years of therapy distilled into four days, and it’s done with another man’s eyes often inches from your own, and a tribe of men surrounding you in support. Think a much more believable and visceral Tony Robbins’ session, with no thoughts of profit margins or book sales.
“The Work” opens with one of the founders, and a father of the filmmaker, we would learn at the end of the screening, leading the men in a chant that summons something primal and essential in them. The act of shouting unifies the men and dredges something from that deep place they will be asked to investigate during their four days. The goal is to journey deep inside yourself, investigate the betrayals or shame buried there, pull it out, declaw it and step unencumbered into your future with self-acceptance.
You can read the pain and fear in the faces of men from both sides, and when that history of suffering surfaces, it explodes, often in physical forms. Some of the toughest men in America, charged with intense and violent crimes, are learning to let down their barriers, and in doing so, they are teaching the civilians how to be vulnerable.
Like many great pieces of art, “The Work” deepens your understanding of your fellow man, cultivates compassion and empathy and connects you to the oversoul that runs through and around us all. As the men learn to trust the process, they learn that the only thing they should fear is the self they refuse to examine and that they often hold the key to their own liberation. When you watch “The Work,” you enter the hot, uncomfortable confines where beauty and truth are forged from the raw materials of pain, longing and the need to connect, and you leave shaken but more rooted in humanity.
For more on “The Work,” visit the film’s website at theworkfilm.com.
A buzz screening of “The Work” has been added at 11 a.m. March 18 at Stateside Theatre.