SXSW 2017: THE WORK Is Intense

The idea of prison usually conjures up thoughts of dread, violence, and suffering. SXSW award-winning documentary The Work shows prison instead as a place of hope and healing.

Be forewarned: The Work is intense. The raw emotion and heartbreak on display is not always easy to watch, but it is always authentic and necessary. The lack of violence on display makes this unlike other documentaries shot inside, but the ride is still a bumpy one.

The Work follows a session of the Inside Circle Foundation, a non-profit organization practicing group therapy inside several prisons. What makes this effort different is the inclusion of outsiders, non-convicts who volunteer to venture inside to be a part of the process alongside the prisoners.

From the very beginning, it’s clear the prisoners are the ones who hold the wisdom. Several of them have participated in the four-day, intensive sessions before, and they know what is meant by the phrase “Do the work.” Most are current or former gang members, from Bloods and Crips to biker gangs to Native American or Pacific Islander crews. They leave these identities at the door.

The very first group experience we see is an inmate named Kiki, all tattoos and bravado, admitting he needs to let down his defenses and finally mourn the death of his sister. This takes the form of tears and eventually a violent group hug in which he battles his demons while his brothers in arms surround and restrain him. This type of thing could so easily be a put on, but in The Work, everything is real, especially when its hard to watch.

The guys “from the street” end up being the focus of the film as they begin to process the pain and trauma of their own lives. Charles grew up fatherless, his dad in prison, and while he’s managed to stay out of trouble, he carries with him this loss of that most sacred bond. The inmates and facilitators help Charles see where that pain is, and by observing others going through their own struggles, he gets a chance to work through it.

Another outsider, Chris, appears out of place. He’s a nice young guy who’s biggest flaw is that he’s created an aimless life, and he comes into the circle in an attempt to knock himself out of the doldrums. When he tells of a hurtful childhood memory when he didn’t get approval from his father, the response from the group was not dismissive, as it could have been compared with the pain and violence the others have experienced. Instead, they rally around him and help Chris do the work of addressing what it is that’s been holding him back.

Recovery programs of all strips exhibit a hard truth: Those who have been through the most have the most to teach the rest of us. This program is built on the idea that everyone has some “medicine” inside them that can help others. The results thus far have been amazing. Healing is happening inside the prison walls, and those that get out are finding success staying there.

The Work is an important film and needs to be viewed widely. Winning SXSW’s Narrative Grand Jury Award will surely help to spread the word. A good distribution deal will help even more.

Our prisons are crowded with the damaging and the damaged. A program that can address this situation in as powerful a way as this one does needs to be celebrated and shared. The inmates themselves pushed for this movie to be made, and if there is justice in the world, it will makes its way in front of many of us outside those walls.

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