Declan Toohey, Contributor.
No epigraph precedes the opening shots of “The Work,” the first feature-length collaboration between Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous, but if there was one, Philip Larkin’s oft-quoted line ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’ would be a suitable contender. However, while Larkin’s solution to such extreme forms of parental influence is to ‘Get out as early as you can, / and don’t have any kids yourself,’ “The Work” posits the argument that all sons who register a disconnect or conflict between themselves and their fathers ought to identify and physically confront this conflict in order to heal as “fatherless sons” – to steal a phrase from one individual in the documentary.
For the most part shot in a single room, during a four-day intensive group therapy session in Folsom State Prison, California, “The Work” records the emotional journeys undertaken by convicts, counsellors, and three men from the ‘outside’ who have chosen to take part in the program. At the outset we’re introduced to Charles, a 41-year-old bartender; Chris, a 25-year-old museum associate; and Brian, a young teacher’s assistant with a fondness for judging others and a raging insecurity that will come to the fore later in the movie. Though they come from different backgrounds, they are all here primarily to get a new perspective on life from the convicts and their environment—and, indeed, this perspective provides both insight and a shock to their senses.
Once the directors have set the scene in the large, cinderblock prison room, James, the program CEO, leads a group chant, and thereafter the participants are split into smaller groups. Here we begin to meet the convicts, some of whom are taking part in the session for the first time. Others, including Vegas, a former gang member serving a life sentence, are session coordinators. There is the bandana-clad, heavily-tattooed Rick, who was once a part of an Aryan motorcycle gang; Dark Cloud, a Native American serving life for ‘almost cutting a guy in half’ (he placed a long knife on his victim’s chest and sat on it); and Kiki, a Latino prisoner who is participating in the session primarily because he wants to grieve for his recently deceased sister and to mourn the fact he can no longer hug his mother since prison walls came between them. Encouraged to express his emotions, Kiki collapses into Vegas’ arms, crying for his family, and his tears are the first of many to flow over the course of the four days.
On day two, the filmmakers challenge conservative representations of masculinity through the group’s discussion of personal betrayals. In one account, a prisoner, Bahartjee, reveals how he confided in a friend only for this friend to subsequently disclose supposedly confidential information. Following this, Brian arrogantly implies that Bahartjee is a hypocrite. Naturally, Baharatjee is offended, and when he presses Brian to provide a reason for his arrogance, what eventually surfaces—after Brian screams, tears up, and claws at his hair like a petulant child—is Brian’s need for respect and how this need dates back to his childhood. Brian details how he often failed to impress his father, and consequently didn’t receive the love and respect he felt he deserved. Through the unobtrusive, restrained cinematography of Arturo Santamaria and Matthew Rudenberg, this moment proves why “The Work” is one of the best documentaries of the year. It takes an honest, direct look at how the actions of fathers affect their sons later in life, and how these sons may achieve some sense of peace of mind through a form of physical release, whether that’s weeping or talking.
By no means an easy watch, The Work is yet another reminder that Dogwoof are distributing some of the most affecting and trenchant documentaries in contemporary cinema—see Gabriella Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish (2013) and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2014) for further evidence. It offers, through Rick’s wisdom, a truth that would be unknown to men ignorant of progressive conceptions of masculinity: that to be empowered as a man should not be equated with being a physically domineering, quasi-aggressive individual, but should be understood as being able to ‘stand up and hurt.’ As the closing credits inform us, out of all the prisoners who took part in the program and were later released from prison, not a single one has resorted to recidivism. Empowerment indeed.
Directed by: Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous.
Cinematography by: Arturo Santamaria and Matthew Rudenberg.
Genre: Documentary, direct cinema.
Runtime: 87 minutes.
For fans of: Salesman (The Maysles Brothers 1969), Dreamcatcher (Kim Longinotto 2014) The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer 2014).
Bottom Line: Not one to pull its punches, The Work takes a powerful look at the process of gaining peace with one’s self, reconciling one’s psychological tie to one’s father, and learning to help others rather than harm them.