Putting the viewer into a men’s circle like no other, The Work is a remarkable piece of reportage. Twice a year, Folsom State Prison, near Sacramento, Calif., invites outsiders to enter its gates as part of a four-day program of intensive group therapy. Court videographer Jairus McLeary, who directed the film with Gethin Aldous, has been making the trip from Illinois since 2003, and his firsthand experience of the therapeutic retreats as a participant rather than an observer infuses the finished product. Premiering in competition at South by Southwest, the doc is certain to stir up further interest on the festival circuit and could find opportunities on select commercial platforms.

After a few potently succinct explanatory titles, the directors plunge straight into the work at hand. Among the 50 or so participants, who soon break into smaller groups, they focus on three first-time non-prisoner participants and three of the incarcerated men who serve as their guides through the sessions. Everyone is identified by first name only. (According to the production notes, the Inside Circle Foundation, run by inmates and ex-convicts, funds and facilitates the retreat. The convicts who are subjects of The Work were, like the film crew, vetted by leaders among the Folsom population.)

The gang and racial affiliations that otherwise define much of life behind bars are left at the chapel door by the participating prisoners. Their willingness to put aside tribal divisions speaks volumes about the hierarchy of the yard and the rules of survival. Not only do a former Aryan Brother, a onetime Crip, an ex-Blood and a member of the prison-system-wide Native American Brotherhood sit together, but they listen to each other.

And it’s the way the men watch one another and listen, the way they’re fully present, that fuels the documentary. Every interaction has a visceral immediacy as well as a focused mindfulness, all of it illuminated in the dynamic camerawork of cinematographer Arturo Santamaria and his team, as well as Amy Foote’s astute editing.

Men whose crimes include murder become paternal figures to the newcomers, patiently drawing them out. McLeary and Aldous’ film is very much about fathers and sons. Of its three outsiders, two explicitly address paternal issues when it’s their turn to dig deep. An openhearted Los Angeles bartender with a “there but for the grace of God” awareness aims to give his children what he couldn’t get from his incarcerated father. Much to his amazement, a slightly wary 25-year-old museum employee finds himself confronting his father’s rejection head-on. But for a tightly wound teacher’s assistant who says he’s drawn to the danger of the experience, the issues are less easily defined and far more combustible. Soon after two convicts’ first conversation with him, one says perceptively to the other, “We’ve got one. A real live wire.” The four days’ events will bear him out.

As with any group therapy, there’s an element of performance along with the vulnerability and raw pain. There are grounding elements of ritual, too, and the psychodynamic methods can get physical, not always in a structured or intentional way. While the camera holds tight on one participant and his quiet soul-searching, anguished howls from another group pierce the air; the sound work by Thomas Curley and John M. Davis is a crucial component of the film’s emotional and sensory impact.

The Work naturally poses questions that its vérité approach leaves unanswered — for starters, what is the application and selection process for civilian participants? But the directors are wise to keep things in the moment and avoid talking-head interviews or background info. Nearly everything in the film occurs within the Folsom chapel, with the key exception of a few introductory voiceover remarks from the film’s three outsiders, and a moment of conversation in the van that takes them to their digs at day’s end. (The El Rancho Motel where Johnny Cash stayed in 1968 is no longer there.)

An end title concerning the group therapy program’s effect on recidivism is more than heartening; it’s the kind of information that should be informing the work of every legislator and prison administrator in the country. Just as the Inside Circle program breaks down walls between its participants, The Work knocks down a few preconceptions that viewers might hold about what it means to be a “hardened” criminal, and whether people can truly change. Many of the men in the film have spent significant portions of their lives locked up, and they help a few visitors discover what it means to be free.

Production companies: Blanketfort Media presents a McLeary Brothers film
Directors: Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous
Producers: Alice Henty, Jairus McLeary, Eon McLeary, Miles McLeary, Angela Sostre
Executive producers: James McLeary, Rob Allbee, Gethin Aldous
Director of photography: Arturo Santamaria
Editor: Amy Foote
Sound designer: John M. Davis
Production sound recordist: Thomas Curley
Venue: South by Southwest (Documentary Feature Competition)
Sales: The Film Sales Company

88 minutes