SXSW Film Review: The Work

Sensitive look at the prison system is a reminder of common humanity

Tuesday night, The Work was awarded the Jury Prize for Documentary Feature Competition at SXSW, a deserved yet wholly daring selection given the film’s complete lack of high-profile producers, subjects, or distributors.

Directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous received rare access to shoot in Folsom State Prison, where a “four-day group therapy retreat” brings together outside volunteers and high-level prisoners. The program’s intention is both to rehabilitate those in jail and to remind those coming from outside it of their shared humanity. Many of the Folsom inmates are veterans of the retreat, now accustomed to exposing their truest selves during these annual sessions without the threat of physical reprisals or the safety of gang alliances. Like a snakeskin, the masks of machismo and power slough off the convicts as they enter the room where the therapy is conducted, and where this film is primarily set.

Along with Amy Foote (whose coruscating editing here presages a Peabody-winning career), McLeary and Aldous trace the evolution of these overwrought conversations through three civilian vessels: one, an entitled millennial looking to shake up his complacent lifestyle; the second a hotheaded, possibly dangerous skeptic; and finally, a family man with strong personal ties to the prison system.

No filmmaker could have written a richer set of masculine archetypes as these real individuals represent, each equally totemic in his defining idiosyncrasies and in his historically male characteristics. Sprinkled amongst the convicts, too, is a shocking range of tics, psychological comfort levels, and mental states. No two figures share a common relationship to Folsom. As a result of this complete unpredictability, any attempts to wield power and manipulation over the other participants are completely nullified.

McLeary, Aldous, and Foote use this to set the stage for an utterly riveting psychotherapy royale. What earns this emotional hurricane of nonfiction its acclaim is an impeccable fusion of dramatic timing, visual tension, and sociopolitical relevancy. Often in documentary narratives about powerfully divisive subjects (like American justice, climate change, or the treatment of animals), the filmmakers decide whose side you’re on for you. But this production team does precisely the opposite: the viewer is completely prohibited from settling on an opinion of any individual or the prison itself, as the narrative threatens constant collapse throughout The Work.

On day two, for example, comes an outburst that rips through the decorum of the retreat. This moment represents, unequivocally, the most powerful single depiction of prison experience I have ever witnessed onscreen. Arturo Santamaria’s delicate but omnipresent camera captures it in a sort of hyper-personal handheld style, too filled with close-ups to be true verité while, for the most part, successfully avoiding participating in the events themselves. It is simultaneously, through Foote’s editing, an unexpected, terrifying, and beautifully mortal moment.

That the filmmakers have dotted the expansive structure of a wider prison critique with such moments speaks to their altogether stunning artistic accomplishment. Frankly, it is hard not to foresee this project traveling the awards-heavy path of last year’s SXSW hit, Keith Maitland's Tower.

The Work

Documentary Feature Competition, World Premiere

Keep up with all our SXSW coverage at Sign up for our South By-specific newsletter at for news, reviews, and previews delivered to your inbox every day of the Fest. And for the latest tweets, follow @ChronSXSW.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

SXSW Film Announces Audience Awards
SXSW Film Announces Audience Awards
Grand Jury awards for Virtual Cinema also named

Josh Kupecki, March 18, 2017

SXSW Film Q&A: Divine Divas
SXSW Film Q&A: Divine Divas
Behind the scenes with the iconic drag queens of Brazil

Anastacia Uriegas, March 17, 2017

More by Sean L. Malin
Louis Black Takes Richard Linklater Doc to PBS
Louis Black Takes Richard Linklater Doc to PBS
dream is destiny airs on American Masters

Sept. 1, 2017

Totally Total Providence
Totally Total Providence
Animator Paul Beck presents A Scanner Darkly at Alamo Drafthouse Mueller

Aug. 25, 2017


SXSW, SXSW Film 2017, The Work, Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle