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Sheffield DocFest 2017: The Work (2017)

On Tuesday evening DocFest hosted it’s award ceremony and announced that the winner of the audience award was The Work. This same film actually picked up the Grand Jury prize for documentaries at South by Southwest film festival, which is really unsurprising considering The Work is potentially one of the most emotionally raw and profound documentaries I have seen in a good while.

Twice a year Folsom State Prison allows members of the public to join with inmates of the prison in an intensive group therapy session for four days. Their aim is to discover lost emotions, or gain closure on sensitive subjects they may not get the chance to do before. The key to this working is that no man is forced to vent or divulge information, but if they offer something the group come together, inmate and civilian alike, to help them move past the all too familiar suppression.

The result of this group therapy? An absolute pressure cabin of four emotionally raw days.

The Work follows three members of the public, Charles, Brian and Chris as they engage in this intensive group therapy session whilst seeking help from the inmates, primarily Vegas and Dark Cloud. But rather than having it centralised through these characters, the inmates alliances are left at the door as they begin to support each other in the group.

This allows for some incredibly footage as Vegas helps Kiki break down his proudly built masculine armour as he pleads that he just wants to cry. The group immediately swarm the former Asian gang member and coach him to tap into his emotions. This becomes a common occurrence throughout as the inmates and civilians alike tread this similar path, each with difference stories to tell.

The group engage in emotional and physical exercises as they help one another, but also themselves to harness the emotions they have been suppressing. The Work becomes incredibly moving, but an interesting look into masculinity as it explores different stories from Dark Cloud’s horrid past, to the intense embrace that captures the rapid heartbeat that matches the audiences after the intense scene.

Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous have managed to effectively capture an emotionally raw film, but filmed it in such a way that the audience almost feel they are sat in on the circle, as you hear the screams and anger from the other groups in the sessions. The fly-on-the-wall filming really works, and The Work is incredibly engaging with the beginning and end results of all those involves in the sessions.

There is an emotional intensity that is so high, it begins to envelope you as you share the emotions with the group, from Kiki’s breakdown to Dark Cloud’s intense internal battle and Chris’ profound breakthrough. Rehabilitation of inmates at prison has always been a testy subject, but Jairus and Gethin proudly finish The Work with anyone that has been through this programme, has never returned to prison, which speaks volumes about the program. After the ninety minutes of viewing, it’s clear to see why as you genuinely feel and see people change through the four days of the intensive group therapy.