Tim Robbins’ documentary “45 Seconds of Laughter,” which premieres Sept. 3 in Venice, follows a group of prisoners in a California facility as they take part in drama workshops led by Robbins’ troupe The Actors’ Gang. In the film, covering 10 sessions over an eight-month period, the inmates reconnect with emotions long buried and form bonds that cut across gang and racial boundaries. Variety speaks to Robbins about his film.

How will the film alter our view of the prisoners?
It’s my hope that the film can help us look with new eyes at something that is largely an abstraction right now. We don’t really think very much about who is inside prisons or whether they have any human potential. I would love if the film reminded us of our shared humanity with people that we tend not to think about.

What changes do the prisoners undergo?
Using the characters from Commedia dell’Arte as buffers, they have the license to tap into emotions that they might not normally express. When you are in prison there is one emotion, it’s anger, and that’s your survival. To be in a room where you’re encouraged to express those emotions through these characters leads to a transformation, a liberation, and a reminder in them that they are more than that angry person.

Why did you use Commedia dell’Arte as the basis for the prison program?
The reason why I believe it is effective is that it is a universal story. At its heart it’s about the fulfilment of love, the obstacles in the way of true love, and the struggle between those that would compromise love and those that would celebrate it. The stock characters are more than archetypes, they are complicated individuals, and the more you explore them, the more you realize the depth that can be mined from this form of theater.

Will the film change the audience’s perception of the potential of drama to change things in a wider sense?
I hope so. The arts are transformative. We work with children as well, in the public school system in Los Angeles, and we are blessed to see the transformation on a daily basis. The arts are absolutely fundamental in the development of a child. I’ve seen how the safe environment of being in a room where you can express yourself can create great change in people.

What do you want the broader effect of the film to be?
I’d love for it to allow a window into reimagining what we are doing in being the country that incarcerates the most people in the world.