BIFF 2017: The Work

Bergen International Film Festival 2017

The Work is a profoundly candid and intimate documentary in which inmates from Folsom State Prison, and a handful of outsiders, sit down for an intensive group therapy session. For four days, any and all differences are left at the door in an honest attempt to break emotional barriers and confront inner demons.

The Work is a program Folsom State Prison arrange twice a year. Jairus McLeary — who directed the documentary with Gethin Aldous — has taken part in it since 2003. His experience feels essential to the film, as you can see and feel his passion for it throughout. McLeary knows these sessions, and he understands these men — he is one of them. He manages to capture it all on camera with an immense humanism at the forefront. It’s easy to imagine how an outsider’s perspective could’ve felt exploitative.


In The Work, we meet former members of the Aryan Brotherhood. We meet ex-Crisps and ex-Bloods. We meet murderers who can recount their crimes in heavy detail. All this is set aside for this exercise. Not only do these men sit down and listen, they open up their hearts to one another. They help each other to break down their barriers, and to confront traumas or demons they may have repressed for decades. They assist one another in extreme revelations of pain rooted in childhood. Fathers play a central role. Whether it is those who grew up without a father and want to be one for their children, or, someone who was beaten or never acknowledged by theirs. We bear witness to this, in an intensely delicate manner.

The real power of the documentary comes in how attentively and respectfully they listen — the way they are fully present at all times. The way in which they seem to learn as much from listening as they do from expressing themselves. When you look at how they listen, you see in their eyes the same affection and care for others as you saw in John Berger’s eyes. It is through this that The Work transcends a simple commentary on masculinity — how men are not allowed to cry; how men are supposed to suppress their emotions — and becomes a documentary about how we see the people around us. How we can work to care for them as much as we care for ourselves. How this is a necessity.

There are very few distractions in The Work. As soon as Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous place us within the circle, we remain there for the most part. There are no voiceovers or talking heads. The camera rarely leaves the circle. Rather, it forces us to stay in it. The intense and emotionally claustrophobic experience these men go through is impossible for us to shake. We may not be active participants in this particular circle, but they welcome us as guests and invite us to participate when we leave the theatre.

Per Morten Mjolkeraaen

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