‘The Work’ documentary calls for violent, candid release of emotion

Jairus McLear/Courtesy

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“Name your betrayals.”

“What is your deepest need?”

If you breathe, relax your jaw and enter your wounds through these questions, you might experience a violent release of emotions — this is what directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous strive to show in their documentary “The Work.” The documentary showcases raw footage of a four-day group therapy session that occurs in Folsom State Prison.

At a special screening and panel at the Vogue Theatre on Wednesday night, San Francisco locals enjoyed free popcorn and drinks as they went through the visceral experience that is the movie. The event was hosted by Topic, a visual arts magazine that featured “The Work” in its June 2018 issue, “Father Figures.”

“The Work,” however, is not just about prisoners and fatherless sons, McLeary said in the panel after the movie — broadly, it’s also about people, their protective shields and emotion.

Before the film began, the editor of Topic explained that this movie encapsulates the difficulties that men face in expressing their emotions because of societal expectations that they be masculine. Through this piece, the filmmakers capture the complexity of this masculinity and the suppression of emotions that often accompanies it.

The group therapy sessions are the work of Inside Circle Foundation — the participants divide up into groups and work through their underlying insecurities and troubles, one by one. Through prompts and discussion, each individual breaks through their source of sorrow, anxiety or depression. As McLeary explained in the panel after the movie, he and his brother had been attending and working at these therapy sessions within the prison for a while. Since the nature of their work was so hard to describe to others, they turned to film, a form of communication familiar to them.

The film follows three everyday people — Charles, a bartender, Brian, a teacher’s assistant, and Chris, a museum associate — attending this group therapy session at the prison. The movie is not over-edited; in fact, it is strikingly raw. Each participant has a microphone on them the entire time, and that’s what makes each subject honest and vulnerable throughout the film, producer Miles McLeary said at the panel.

When one prisoner, Dante, breaks down after explaining how he cannot see his son, given his life sentence in jail, you can hear his heart thumping. When another says, “I want to be able to cry that my sister died,” you see him collapse and the whole group collapse with him. You see the others crying as well; you hear their wails.

We, as the viewers, were privy to the inner emotions and insecurities of almost every individual, prisoner or not. In these honest moments, heads turned and jaws dropped. In the small theater, you could hear people gasp and tear up as they sipped their wine. As one prisoner explains, this filmed therapy session was a “process of going into the wounds,” and the result is not pretty or comfortable to watch, but it is beautiful.

Through the openness of these prisoners, the everyday people, Charles, Chris and Brian, learn how to express their emotions as well. Brian is able to vocalize — through shrieks, tears and violent outbursts — that he has trouble feeling respected in his day-to-day life. Chris find himself reflecting on how he’s lost the happiness he once had as a child. Charles makes peace with the fact that his imprisoned father was missing throughout his childhood, and he whispers about the importance of looking out for the fatherless sons.

So check out “The Work,” because we all have a little bit to learn about letting out our emotions. The movie tells us that it’s ugly and uncomfortable to enter our wounds, but if we put in the work, we can find results.

Contact Malini Ramaiyer at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the June 2018 issue of Topic is titled “Boys to Men.” In fact, the issue is titled “Father Figures.”