Matthew Cooke talks art, activism, and Survivors Guide to Prison
What does it mean to be an activist? On the basest level, it means promoting social change by raising awareness about an issue or idea. Activism is often depicted in historical narratives through larger-than-life figures and mass movements. But the greatest activism takes place when ordinary individuals work to connect with others on a one-on-one level. From those small gestures, hope transforms into promise for everyone. Director Matthew Cooke (How to Make Money Selling Drugs) and I discussed this interpersonal activist approach as it appears in his latest documentary project, Survivors Guide to Prison (2018).
The film argues for reforming how the United States treats its incarcerated population and describes how human empathy can generate long-term decline in recidivism rates. “It wrestles with how to restore ourselves or bring ourselves into greater harmony with ourselves and with each other,” he explained. “We are creatures who exist in time and space; we’re going to be presented with obstacles and challenges. And if one has challenges, one is inevitably going to cause harm along the way.” Survivors Guide ultimately teaches us about forgiveness, redemption, and fighting injustice.
Through the stories of Reggie Cole and Bruce Lisker, two men wrongfully convicted of murder, we learn about our broken legal system and the necessity of treating inmates with the same respect every human being deserves. Issues surrounding prisoner welfare came to Cooke’s attention after he learned startling statistics about repeat offenders.
“Over 200 million people in the United States are in prison and the majority of them are in state prisons,” he told me. “80% of those that go to state prison will go back within five years. How can anything be a success with an 80% failure rate?” Such a high number indicates an obvious systemic problem.
Cooke’s comedic background helped him approach a film about such an absurd reality. “Survivors Guide came from my two year tradition of doing little Facebook videos where I just set up a camera in my bedroom and talked to the camera and cut it into a short,” he revealed. “It’s the nature of life to adapt to the darkness with humor. The situations we’re covering are so absurd that the only healthy way you can work on them month after month is to laugh.”
Adapting that honest direct to camera style, Matthew reached out to ex-offenders, scholars, activists, law enforcement officials, and celebrities that inspired him. The cast credits include authors Michelle Alexander and Deepak Chopra; California Innocence Project Managing Attorney Mike Semanchik; actors Danny Trejo, Patricia Arquette, Danny Glover, Cynthia Nixon, and Jesse Williams; and musicians Ice-T, RZA, Chuck D., Macklemore, Q-Tip, Tom Morello, Quincy Jones, and Incubus’ Brandon Boyd. Each interviewee confronts viewers with facts about incarceration and then reflects on their meaning.
The thin line between entertainment, education, and activism is articulated best in a scene featuring rapper Busta Rhymes. Responding to California Innocence Project Director Justin Brooks’ revelation that 95% of all defendants end up accepting plea bargains because they feel helpless to fight their cases, Rhymes simultaneously bows his head in horror and laughs with disbelief.
Intellectuals and celebrities who usually appear composed and controlled are laid bare by vulnerability. Breaking the fourth wall creates an inescapable atmosphere for viewers, forcing them to become part of the conversation. “What I wanted to do with the film was put people inside and give them twenty years of experience in a hundred minutes.” The frenzied trip is anchored by Susan Sarandon’s narration, a cool antidote to the burning fury of the film’s truths.
Cautious of being too heavy, Cooke tried to keep the film feeling balanced. “You’ve got to keep it serious. But I tried to have a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek thing with the concept of a survivors guide. It’s silly that we would need to have a way to survive a mechanism by which we’re trying to achieve harmony in our society.” The title evokes step by step training manuals, as well as books like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), bringing Survivors Guide into conversation with other narratives of enlightenment. “Stories are tools for living,” Matthew said. “They’re how we determine our morality, our ethics.”
The ability to tell those stories comes from the empowerment of knowing how to use language for artistic expression. Matthew summarizes the value of art, also his ethos behind Survivors Guide, by paraphrasing Curt L. Tofteland, Founder & Producing Director of Shakespeare Behind Bars: “He said that art gets at the eternal essence of what it means to be a human being. So, if you want to know what it means to be a human being, you’re going to explore the arts.” Shakespeare Behind Bars uses the immortal bard’s work as a therapeutic tool for exposing and ameliorating the suffering which manifests as crime. The program treats inmates as people to be developed, rather than misanthropes to be excommunicated. This allows offenders the precious gift of living beyond the stigma of conviction.
Survivors Guide to Prison is part of the culture of compassion developing around prisoner welfare. It joins Shakespeare Behind Bars, legendary MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer’s Lexington project, the Rutgers University States of Incarceration awareness program, former Governor Jim McGreevey’s New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC), and other initiatives as pillars of a movement dedicated to individualized rehabilitation methods. “People shouldn’t be denied the right to have the language and words to describe the experiences they’re having in life,” Matthew told me. “So many people never have the opportunity to examine the experiences they’re having in life in a way they can understand.” Only be reclaiming and reinforcing basic human rights for every member of our society can we have a society at all.
Survivors Guide to Prison, distributed by Gravitas Ventures, is in theaters and available on VOD and Digital HD now. Matthew will be leading screenings and Q & A sessions on a tour this spring. Visit the film’s Facebook page to keep up on dates in your area. You can also follow Matthew on Instagram @matthewcookeofficial.