Review of the film "The Work"

“The Work” was filmed at Folsom Prison in California. It paints a stark picture of the inmates and the invited outside participants during a four-day group therapy process.

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The film is gritty, real and puts the viewer face to face with level four offenders who are open about the crimes they committed to get themselves there. One inmate tells of “almost sawing a man in half” with a knife.

They move towards personal redemption by helping each other to deal with their pasts. In “The Work” they find ways to reclaim their humanity and find grace. Through this facilitated process they face their own demons. At the same time commonalities emerge with the outsiders who join them as help one another heal.

It is not fully clear what brings the three outsiders to join the prisoners in this process. One participant shared that he grew up with an incarcerated father. He comes to understand the men inside are as lost as his own father was and as he finds himself.

The work goes deep quickly as the inmates are weekly participants in their own group therapy sessions. They are brutally honest and encourage each other to be real makes watching this film both uncomfortable and compelling. There are times when their rage explodes. As that happens the trained facilitators are ready to intervene.  When they share the pain of their life stories these supposedly scary men hold each other until they dissolve into tears. It is uncomfortable for most viewers to see such an outpouring of raw emotion. I heard one male viewer call the outpouring of anger “toxic masculinity” but it seemed to me to be a healthy masculinity where those buried hurts and traumas find expression in a safe environment. Our larger culture seems to value men holding in their emotions. That can often lead to the isolation and depression many men suffer from.

Underlying all the emotions is grief. This is the common denominator for all of them. Grief shows up as an inmate expresses the pain of missing the sister he never got to say goodbye to. And as another lets his tears flow about the father he never knew who lived his life behind bars.

The expression of tears, pain and loss come with passionate encouragement from the inmates. Unseen are the weekly sessions where they have dealt with their rage and the damage they have done to themselves and others.  Along the way they have begun to grieve their lost childhoods due to abuse and neglect.  

As one inmate, Kiki, finally begins to grieve for his sister his wrenching sobs and collapsing body are held with great tenderness by other burly, tattooed men. We are looking into the darkest pools of human emotion and finding it being contained and soothed by the others who have been in those same dark waters. Somehow, they find a way to stand in the light, together. Even though many in the film are serving long sentences they are finding a kind of freedom, a freedom of the spirit. They are finding ways to be at peace. It is hard to look away as these incarcerated men come across as more like seekers of the truth about their own feelings and lives.

I highly recommend you see this film, so you can witness the power of group work to help heal and change lives for the better.