Americans increasingly live in bubbles and echo chambers where our news, our social media feeds, and even our churches tailor their messages so precisely that we rarely see or hear those whose lives and beliefs differ drastically from our own. No media form is immune from the audience’s tendency to gravitate toward stories that confirm rather than challenge its preconceived notions—but documentary films do seem singularly equipped to take us out of our comfort zones. The extra effort it takes to get up and leave a theater as opposed to turning off a DVD or scrolling past a Facebook feed is often enough of a difference to make skeptical viewers stick with stories that don’t immediately strike them as worth their time.
Cases in point: Neither Served Like a Girl nor The Work generated much enthusiasm for me based on their catalog descriptions alone. They turned out, however, to be the two most engaging and inspiring films at March’s SXSW Film Festival.
Lysa Heslov’s film profiles five current and former participants in the Ms. Veteran America competition. (Don’t call it a “pageant,” or you’ll owe the women ten push ups.) If you are ambivalent about such competitions, don’t worry—so are some of the participants...at least at first. But the show’s primary goal—to raise awareness of and funds for America’s 55,000 homeless female veterans—resonates strongly with these service women committed to the creed that a soldier does not leave behind a fallen comrade.
It’s fairly obvious that the film, like the competition, is designed to challenge stereotypical media images of beauty. The contestants represent a variety of ethnicities and body types. What is a bit more surprising, though, is how likable they are once one is able to poke past the veneer of social and political differences that too often get us to judge people by external appearances only. One would expect a film full of MST (Military Sexual Trauma), Purple Hearts, and battles for benefits to be a bit of a downer, but it is filled with a surprising amount of uplift, and even occasional dark humor. (When asked about the misperception that women were previously excluded from combat, one former contestant—a double amputee—said, “Do [people] think I chewed my legs off because I was hungry?”)
I didn’t think I would, but by the end of Served Like a Girl, I cared about who won the competition. I cared who won because the film made me care about the women’s reasons for competing. The film not only challenges our notions of what it means to be beautiful but also makes us take stock of what it means to serve your neighbor and your nation.
If I was skeptical that I could relate to the participants in Heslov’s film, I was doubly dubious that I would care about the Folsom Prison inmates who allow their four-day, intensive group therapy session to be filmed in Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’s The Work. One of the program’s signature features is that civilians are invited to go into the prison and participate in the group therapy. They become our surrogates, often expressing the fear, skepticism, or judgment that we feel toward murderers and gang members who end up having a lot more insight into the causes and effects of psychological trauma than we expect.
Group therapy would seem to be particularly susceptible to being dirsupted by cameras filming, but McLeary obviously had the inmates’ trust since his father was one of the program’s facilitators. I also wondered if the inmates would try to scam the program in order to earn some sort of credit for good behavior. In the Q&A at SXSW, the filmmakers and program facilitators emphasized that none of the inmates receive “points” towards early release or parole for participating in the program. Since inmates have no extrinsic motivations to participate, those who do tend to do so because they geuniely want the emotional or psychological benefits that therapy can provide.
Those are admittedly hard to quantify, but a postscript during the credits indicates that of the 18 convicts who have participated and subsequently been paroled, none have returned to prison. That’s a startling statistic for anyone even remotely familiar with our penal system. (One report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports six out of ten conditionally released state prisoners return to prison within five years.) At the very least, the postscript is anecdotal evidence that the therapy program works—provided one cares about rehabilitation as opposed to merely punishment.
Should we? Part of what made The Work such a tough watch for me is that I had a brother who was murdered when I was a boy. Although the man who murdered him was arrested and eventually died in jail, I could not help but put myself in the shoes of those families or victims whose lives had been devastated by these men. Christians—at least theoretically—believe in second chances. Intellectually, we may know that nobody “deserves” grace, but that doesn’t keep us (or me, anyway) from feeling satisfaction when those we want to see punished turn away from tracks of redemption—or from feeling anger when the penaltites they labor under are less than an eye for an eye.
Maybe half of me wanted to see these men fail. My other, better half, though, was genuinely moved and challenged by how much work they were doing to resist the lure of despair or the quick adrenaline kick of yet more violence. It is an easy, glib thing to simply parrot—“There but for the grace of God go I.” The interactions between the civilians and the convicts, however, show us in startling detail that despite how different our circumstances are, the demons we battle as fallen human beings are remarkably similar.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an associate professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, and III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.