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‘The Work’ Director Jairus McLeary Reveals How He Gained Inmates’ Trust for His Documentary — Watch

McLeary spoke about the film at an IDA screening.

Director Jairus McLeary and IndieWire’s Steve Greene

It took a serious level of trust for the prisoners who participate in an intense therapy session at Folsom State Prison in California to allow director Jairus McLeary inside the emotional four-day self-help discussion for his new documentary, “The Work.”

After a showing of the film at the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series, McLeary revealed that he had volunteered at the program, run by the nonprofit Inside Circle Foundation (of which his psychologist father, James McLeary, is CEO), for more than half a decade before the inmates allowed him to film there. Jairus and his producer brothers Eon and Miles were joined by their father and “The Work” subject Vegas, a former inmate, in a discussion of the film with IndieWire Special Projects Editor Steve Greene.

The McLearys had all volunteered in the program, which James administers, for years. Because of that, they knew they couldn’t really anticipate what they were going to capture before they arrived.

“We didn’t know what we were going to get, bringing the cameras into that environment, we didn’t know if the sound was going to be all messed up,” Eon said. “We didn’t know if the cameras were going to shut down all emotion that was happening. There was just really no way to anticipate that even if we had been in there a bunch of times. …Since there was no guarantee what we going to capture, we shot a ton of more material that’s not in the film that’s primarily interviews. … Once we caught the meat of it we realized we didn’t need any of that stuff.”

Explained McLeary, “All of us who have sat in circles we know that — you can tell there’s four other circles in that room. There’s three or four, there’s about 60-80 men on one of those weekends so we just chose one circle to shoot.”

The crew had to be prepared to cover any person in the circle, because what each man says affects everyone else.

“Each guy that talks, you never know. It just so happened to be the theme for this weekend was fatherless sons for this group. It could be something else for some other weekend. What one man shares affects the next man, affects the next man, and in the editing process we tried to show what the feeling was,” McLearly said. “It’s not just about the person speaking, it’s about the person who is receiving this information because they might be the next to go to do their work reacting off the person that’s speaking.”

James revealed that it took a while for the sessions to yield true discussions after the foundation began hosting them.

“When the circles first started the guys would be sitting there and there would be no dialogue whatsoever,” he said. The inmates eventually broke the ice by talking about their mothers, and finally the men began to open up.

Vegas, who was serving a life sentence when he began the program, said everything he learned during the process is something he uses in his everyday life.

“I’ve seen and experienced enough just in traffic that lets me know I would have killed someone and gone back already [without it],” he joked.

In all seriousness, the rate of recidivism of men who have participated in the program is shockingly low: Not one veteran has been incarcerated again.

“10 guys have been released in the last year,” McLearly said. “The rate of recidivism for Inside Circle Foundation for guys who have gotten out is zero.”

In comparison, the average rate of recidivism for California inmates is around 65 percent.

Vegas said he thinks the program is responsible for the fact that Folsom State Prison has not had many major incidents in its general population in the past decade or so.

“I credit that to the program,” he said. “Races are mixing on the general population yards…across gang lines and across color lines.”

Watch clips from the Q&A below:

“The Work” is out Oct. 27 in New York and Oct. 25 in Los Angeles, with other cities following. The film will be available in digital and On Demand on Nov. 21.

The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.

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