by Alex Billington
September 3, 2019
Can laughter change the world? Can happiness save a life? Those are the kind of questions that might come to mind while watching this documentary, and at times, you could actually believe the answer is yes. 45 Seconds of Laughter is a doc film directed by actor Tim Robbins. He takes his acting group called The Actors Gang inside of a high security prison in California, running a week-long workshop where prisoners participate in a group in various theater / acting exercises. We’ve seen films like this before, and performing theater inside prisons isn’t new, but it is always moving to watch. There’s just something remarkably stirring about seeing prisoners, perpetually unhappy and angry, suddenly finding happiness and making tiny steps forward. It reminds us once again how the incredible power of positivity can be as a great force for change.
45 Seconds of Laughter takes us right into the prison from the start. A group of diverse prisoners is brought into a large open room, wearing their generic blue prison outfits, and they begin the program. The cameras cut between close-ups & wide shots while they work their way through various interactive games and acting exercises that build their confidence, break down barriers, and force them to confront dormant emotions. The grand finale of their self-expression involves painting their faces and playing characters taken from the Commedia dell’Arte play. Only through the stories they share, we learn that all of this is as far as possible from their normal life behind bars – where inmates are self-segregated racially, and violence / machoism is the norm. It’s quite amusing to watch them participate, and never feels intrusive only simply observational.
The film reminds me of the other recent prison doc The Work, and is just as moving as that one. These kind of prison rehabilitation programs are often very successful, and helpful for inmates who are ready & willing to open up and challenge themselves. Both documentaries are the kind where the camera just follows along as merely an observer in the process. There’s no explanation as to what we’re seeing, there’s no explanation of how exactly these acting exercises make a difference. Simply watching everyone participate and start to express their emotions explains the reasons anyway, and that connection is beautiful to see. The point being that by watching them connect, change, and grow through laughter, positivity, vulnerability, we can learn from them. Yes, indeed, we can learn from prisoners and try to spread more positivity in our own daily lives.
There were a few times watching this film where my mind drifted towards the thought of wondering whether watching prisoners is some kind of privileged form of self-righteousness satisfaction. Here I am, a free man who has never been in prison or known what that is really like, sitting in a cinema at a film festival watching prisoners who cannot go anywhere or do anything participating in a group therapy session inside a prison. Of course they’re sad and angry, they’re in prison! And we’re not! And by watching them become happy and fight through their emotions to laugh and cry, we suddenly feel moved by that. It’s not bad, but it did feel a bit awkward a few times. And it’s an intriguing feeling to have. Would the prisoners feel the same way, and feel as moved as I was, if they were in this same cinema watching themselves up on the screen? I’m not sure.