Emotional barriers are a daunting entity. They don’t carry a physical form, but they still occupy space in our lives by affecting our decisions, how we interact with certain people and even our own personalities. Too many choose to just shove those emotional barriers to the back of your mind, hoping the o’l “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” axiom will end up applying for these internal problems. More often than not though, that just ends up exacerbating the issues you’ve been grappling with and leaving you in a worse position than where you started. Like I said though, these emotional barriers are a daunting thing to confront, so how does one go about actually handling these barriers?
Well, for a number of strangers in California, they partake in a yearly group therapy session at Folsom Prison wherein long-term inmates at the facility interact with non-prisoners over the course of four days in order to confront their own individual demons. The majority of the prisoners we see in the documentary The Work are violent offenders serving sentences spanning multiple decades who have been able to find some form of mental solace in these sessions over the years and hope to show how they work to the newcomers, many of whom are skeptical of this specific process and even the very concept of expressing emotion in overt ways, the latter element being a key component of these sessions.
That’s all there is to The Work and that’s all it needs. With cameras rolling as to capture the individual emotional barriers being chipped away, we are able to witness some truly astonishing depictions of personal breakthroughs that manifest in sometimes hard to watch ways. The default manner for how these breakthroughs present themselves is in both prisoners and non-prisoners alike crying out in intense anguish as if the very act of stumbling onto a way to partially heal their psyche is causing them internal pain. The road to self-improvement as shown here is not paved with ease, but rather turmoil at confronting the past and letting others in.
The various accounts we get to see from this particular extended group session are all compelling to one degree or another but perhaps the one that struck home the most to me on an emotional level was from a prisoner by the name of Dark Cloud. His testimony involves him coming clean on his childhood, which involved his parents separating and him going to live with his dad despite his mom urging him not to due to his father’s consistently bad behavior. As he delineates this tale from his own past, it’s as if he’s able to come to terms with it for the first time simply by vocalizing it to other people. By the end, as he begins to question to himself “Why did I do that to my Mom?” as tears begin to flow heavily from his eyes, I was utterly devastated by what I was watching.
I could feel Dark Cloud’s pain, the very same pain he’d obviously been carrying around for decades now in his heart. The entire point of these extensive group sessions is to ensure that the various members participating in it can connect and find empathy with each other as they try to confront their own internal problems and this documentary, directed by Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous, is able to translate that purpose into a cinematic form beautifully. On a deeper technical level regarding how this footage was captured, it’s commendable how well-filmed The Work is and it’s especially notable how the mere presence of video cameras doesn’t interrupt the intentionally intimate mood of these meetings. The cameras themselves seem to melt away for both the actual participants in these meetings and for the viewer so they can all just concentrate on the personal work at hand.
It’s great that McLeary and Aldous recognized that there was no need to provide pointless embellishments for The Work, no subplots for the people we meet separated from the group therapy sessions, none of that is in here. They knew all to well that all you need to do for this documentary to work is provide an unflinching look at the process that allows these human beings to crash through the barriers that have been holding them back as people. The Work documents events that are frequently hard to watch (in a good way), but one that leaves both the actual people engaging in it and the viewer in a better place once it’s done.