THE WELL OF GRIEF
Those who will not slip beneath
The still surface on the well of grief,
Turning down through its black water
To the place we cannot breathe,
Will never know the source from which we drink,
The secret water, cold and clear,
Nor find in the darkness glimmering,
The small round coins,
Thrown by those who wished for something else.
This poem is read out in Jairus McLeary’s documentary The Work.
McLeary takes you inside a four day group therapy session at Sacramento’s New Folsom prison where three men who aren’t convicts join level four (the worst violent offenders) inmates to summon their personal demons and start making peace with them. The film is intense, unflinching, and emotionally charged. It can be hard to watch, but it is brilliantly executed. McLeary gets right to it and goes to the difficult material immediately.
Sartre said “Hell is other people.” I was suddenly aware watching this film of the very real freedom in isolation and the privacy of your own thoughts, particularly for introverts. Exposure to the unfiltered extremes of emotion that erupt in the session is distressingly uncomfortable. If there’s a punishment more severe than the raw vulnerability of having your psyche turned inside out for display and comment, I cannot imagine what it might be. The emotions are powerful, sometimes violent and the dirt that gets dug up reveals ugly horrors of the past.
“Sartre said ‘Hell is other people.'”
The conversation between the men in the group is not for conveyance of information in the usual sense. It’s abstract, ritual incantation meant to evoke certain emotional releases. The only logic here is emotional logic. There’s no thinking your way through this or turning away from the discomfort. There’s a flavor of improv theater, where the typical response is to dig deeper with “yes, and?” Perception is reality.
Currently New Folsom Prison is at 180% capacity and the prisoners are in desperate circumstances. The therapy session is a reprieve from prison life and could be a way to a shorter sentence. It has a powerful emotional impact on all the men.
The inmates are fully engaged in the process, both receiving and dispensing thoughts, feelings, and helping others reach the emotional state of discovery they need. The willingness to expose the pain and complex hairball of emotional train wreckage comes surprisingly fast. The effect of people openly sharing in this space immediately transcends any differences like race. These are just broken humans, no other classifications matter.
Native American ritual plays a part and the word brother takes on new meaning for these fatherless sons who shepherd each other through this dark valley.
That there may be some level of recklessness in encouraging large powerful men who harbor homicidal rage to feel and express the full range of their emotions is made clear when an inmate aptly named Dark Cloud goes into a violent murderous frenzy and has to be physically restrained by the group.
The Work is the first documentary for Jairus McLeary. He spent several years gaining the trust of the convicts in order to film. Gethin Aldous had his own experience at Folsom and was inspired to work with McLeary.
“Anyone struggling to find empathy or common ground with people unlike themselves should watch this film as required viewing.”
What is the outcome of The Work? The men move closer to understanding themselves and have better control, which seems contradictory in the regimented environment of prison. The documentary indicates that many of the men completing the program go on to be paroled or released and don’t come back to prison.
Anyone struggling to find empathy or common ground with people unlike themselves should watch this film as required viewing. If you are willing to slip beneath the still surface on the well of grief you will be enlightened and moved by this extraordinary experience.
Look for The Work in theaters in the UK, US distribution still pending.
The Work (2017). Directed by Gethin Aldous, Jairus McLeary.
8 out of 10