The Work is as cathartic to watch as it is to experience as it explores the process of rehabilitation and redemption inside a high-security California prison. 

Dogwoof have had a pretty good year of it. Between Quest, a moving family portrait set over eight years in Philadelphia, City of Ghosts, and Risk, the documentary makers have managed to tell stories that resonate with global audiences, using a microscopic lens to tell raw, undiluted stories that transcend traditional boundaries of filmmaking.

Their latest project is no different. The Work is set and filmed inside one room in Folsom State Prison, California, where a group of men have voluntarily enrolled in a four day programme of group therapy alongside hardened inmmates. The first film from legal videographer, Jairus McLeary, and the second outing for co-director, Gethin Aldous, The Work documents the transformative prison therapy session with unbound

By containing the drama within one room, the filmmakers powerfully capture the level four convicts in their natural environment, allowing focus to settle on their words and views, unadulterated by interference from an interviewer or voice-over narrative. It’s something we’ve seen in the documentaries of Louis Theroux, from his Miami Mega Jail and A Place for Paedophile programmes. However, The Work allows the inmates and their visitors to speak for themselves, unfettered by questions and largely, it seems, uninhibited by the presence of cameras.

At times you might wonder whether it’s all real, as our inmates and their guests wail at the top of their lungs as they rediscover suppressed memories and dig deep into their emotional backstories. But it’s easy to be sceptical as a Brit with the stiff upper lip engrained into our national psyche.

What’s most arresting is the sight of grown men, those with double and triple life sentences, former members of the Arian Brotherhood, Crip and Blood gangs, breaking down about their paternal relationships. Their catharsis is so severe that many of them physically break down in the almost exorcism-like process; the most powerful of the three men the film focusses on being Chris, a 25 year old museum worker internally struggling with his relationship with his father.

The Work is not necessarily a Netflix-style documentary. There are no sweeping cinematic shots or booming soundtracks, no overarching narrative structure or point to prove. This is a cinema vérité film that has much to say about the feelings that plague all humans, no matter what our backgrounds, that deep desire to be wanted.

This portrait is testament to the programme’s success in asking grown men to reflect on their own lives through the eyes of prisoners and to accept their own redemption, and in actively bringing down recidivism amongst those conducting and taking part in the work of rehabilitation programmes operating within the prison system.

The Work opens on 8th September at selected cinemas. Tickets here

★★★☆☆