Open Circle
By Eric Hynes

The Work
Dir. Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous, U.S., The Orchard

Less than 15 minutes into The Work, things are happening that most films take an hour or more to build toward. A man, Kiki, is reckoning with the death of a loved one, and he’s emitting a most terrifying primal scream. Other men are holding him down as he thrashes and thrusts, their grip somewhere between a vice and an embrace. He’s tunneling into hell while others carry and guard him there, holding, soothing, and witnessing his descent. This happens again and again in the film. Everyone goes deep. And everyone’s got company.

Sometimes watching a work of nonfiction can feel like a privilege. How a film comes together makes the experience implicitly so: artists endeavor to record something we wouldn’t ordinarily see, and those being recorded permit it (usually). But there’s a difference, especially experientially, between tacit privilege and mutual, active awareness of what’s been made possible. When it’s the latter, the audience can feel gratitude for access as well as a heightened, “I can’t believe I’m watching this” sense of drama that’s particular to documentary.

Some might invoke voyeurism to describe the above, but doing so can say more about the viewer than it does of what and who is being viewed. For when we are privileged to watch, others have afforded us that privilege. You’re not a snooper, peeking through blinders from a secret outside perch. You’re invited in the room. In fact, in a film like The Work, with its multiple layers of privileged access and precariously obtained permissions from an array of potentially volatile participants, you’re not just being allowed to see. Your sight is essential. Seeing and being seen is the point.

Privileged access is foregrounded from the start, built into both scenario of the film and the terms of what’s being documented. At Folsom State Prison in northern California, some male maximum-security inmates meet regularly for group therapy. Twice a year, free men are permitted to spend four consecutive days with these prisoners, in a large single room adjacent to the prison. The film takes place over one such trip, tracking three outsiders, Charles, Chris, and Brian, as they voluntarily commune with criminals. That’s all we know as the film begins, with facilitators literally walking them, and us, into the prison with minimal idea of who these free men are, and why they might have volunteered for this. As we soon find out, they don’t know or understand much more than we do, making them ideal conduits for an audience plunged into the deep end of male trauma.

Once the outsiders march inside—single-file, perp-like—we’re effectively stuck there. Days are marked by a laughably perfunctory set of shots of the surrounding landscape, and of brief voiceover from our three designated free men discussing what’s on their minds. This all amounts to about a minute or two of total screen time. Otherwise we’re in a single nondescript communal room, occupied exclusively by men. White men, black men, Native American men, Latin men; gang members, white supremacists, thieves, assaulters, murderers. And filmmakers. One of the very many great things about The Work is how little effort is made to persuade us of authenticity beyond what we’re privileged to witness in the room. Cameras and cameramen aren’t hidden. Exposure enhancing light sources hang indiscreetly above everyone’s heads. Sound men peer in from the periphery. No one is pretending that filming isn’t going on. If you prefer, or rely upon an illusion of non-intervention in order to accept what’s being captured, you’re out of luck. The participants know that cameras are watching. And thus they also know that you are.

The theatricality of The Work is neither incidental nor detrimental—it’s native to the process being documented. Every space is, or at least can be, a theatrical one, its contours and contexts defining the nature of our performances. It’s certainly true of therapeutic spaces, be they of the daybed, low-wattage lamp and noise-canceler variety, or the steel chairs in a circle style visited here. And in these spaces, self-consciousness is always in play. The camera crew brings in another layer, but it’s that: a layer, not a redirection or corruption. The methodology adopted by the Inside Circle Foundation, as seen in The Work, uses the power of the group to encourage individual exposure and self-reckoning. These are group scenes punctuated by monologues, veering into dialogues, and, as with that early session, collective scrums that teeter between playacting and actual combat. In one breathless sequence of events, a roundelay of confessional monologues turns into a confrontation between a facilitator and a live-wire outsider, Brian, who attempts to call out the former for posturing. With tensions suddenly unbearably high, other facilitators redirect to focus on Brian’s judgmental impulse, which just as suddenly leads to an eruption of something like aggressive self-loathing. A moment later, Brian blindly agrees to take part in a ritual of resistance, wildly flailing against a group of men who both hold and talk him down. He emerges spent, seemingly humbled, and bleeding from the forehead. The other men joke about the story he’ll be able to tell when he leaves—proving his mettle at Folsom Prison. Self-consciousness abounds, but isn’t bound by the conceit of film.

A few times during that sequence, Brian glances at the camera, which is always right there. Having just drawn the ire of a couple dozen convicts, all of whom are staring daggers his way, what does the camera signify, or do to him? Does it instigate his outburst? Or does it offer a degree of witnessed protection for what’s inevitable and needs to happen next? Or is it another set of eyes in the room for him to characterize, to rail against, conquer, win over? There’s no way of knowing. The myriad ways of reading him, and the moment, matches the complexity and instability of looking at any man caught in the spotlight. What’s he really after? What’s he really feeling? And what makes you think you have any right to know? The camera’s owed nothing more than any of the people occupying that space.

In this film, the limitations of the shoot serve as assets, pushing everything into a pulsating present-tenseness. The session is four days long. There’s one nondescript, contour-less setting. All questions and answers, arcs and complications are to be found therein. No interviews, no voiceover, strictly observational. According to director Jairus McLeary and co-director Gethin Aldous, it took years to organize the shoot, years to earn permissions from the prison, the prisoners, and the various gangs represented by the participants. (Access to the facilitators was easier, being that one of the most prominent is Aldous’ uncle. It offered a crucial first step in the door.) The filmmakers participated in multiple sessions themselves, proving themselves to the prisoners while also blocking out how a shoot might go. With only four days of footage to work with despite years of preparation, they effectively decided which of the prisoners to cast, and hoped/angled for the best. Audio is imperfect, and is often challenged by outbursts from sessions happening simultaneously off camera, or just out of focus. The scenes that editor Amy Foote bundled into the finished film may or may not be representative of what happened over those four days, but there’s a rough, half improvisational, half intelligent design quality to it all that feels both unbearably alive and revelatory.

In another session, Dante, a member of the Bloods who’s serving a double life sentence, expresses feelings of mortal hopelessness, being estranged from his young son and having no way to effectively close the gap. We’re watching a strong, handsome, proud, soft-spoken man confessing his darkest and very immediate thoughts to his fellow inmates. He’s voicing what many, if not most, have also considered—just ending it. It’s the opposite of what we witnessed with Brian, and in other participants’ physically and emotionally cathartic moments, and it knocks everyone back, even the ones offering useful rejoinders. One counselor simply moves next to him to rub a hand across his back, replacing a handmade sign clearly made for the cameras that reads, “LADIES—PLEASE WRITE ME!” Charles, one of the free men, breaks down sobbing with empathy. Rick, a former member of the Aryan Brotherhood, wants to know why he and his fellow inmates aren’t enough reason for Dante, a black man, to go on living. (Think about that one for a minute. It’s been eight months since I first saw the movie and I haven’t stopped thinking about it.) Another man serving seven years to life, Vega, stands tear-streaked face to tear-streaked face with Dante, scolding, cajoling, pleading. Finally, after the longest of minutes (and with prisoners from adjoining sessions strolling by in the background, oblivious and also obviously not), they embrace, their flush chests smothering their lavalier microphones so that their words become inaudible, capturing instead two hearts pounding away.

Thirty more extraordinary minutes follow, but that may be the summit in a film constructed out of peaks. It’s also a crucial pivot in our potential for understanding what’s actually being performed in this theater. For as crucial as self-reckoning is to their process, it becomes apparent that the essential players are those who, like Vegas, take it upon themselves to listen, to engage with one another, to get beyond themselves. Everyone has a story. Sooner or later, everyone opens up and tells theirs. The harder work happens in seeing past one’s own demons and hurt to express empathy for another’s. It leads to hardened criminals finding, effortlessly it seems, a way of connecting with outsiders who haven’t experienced 1/100th of their struggle. Maybe you came to ogle tough men talking about their feelings. Sure, there’s plenty of that. But you also find models not only of rehabilitation but of caring. They see into the heart of things better than you or I do. Miraculously, The Work lets you see that.

“I feel him,” a rattled Charles, an outsider, says to prisoner Rick while Kiki lies broken on the floor. “Charles,” Rick says, looking away from his fellow inmate and into the eyes of a man he’d never met before today, while a camera lets us, people he’ll never meet, watch him. “It’s fucked up if you don’t.”