The Truth About “Prison”: An Interview with Filmmaker/Activist Matthew Cooke

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Matthew Cooke is not just a filmmaker, but an avid social activist whose work has received top honors. A documentarian whose work has earned him Academy Award nominations and several accolades, Cooke has been a member of Sankofa, Harry Belafonte’s organization of artists for social change; and his latest film, a four-year project entitled Survivor’s Guide to Prison, in which he appears alongside many celebrities, will be unveiled today in theaters, VOD, and Digital HD from Gravitas Ventures.

World Film Geek had the chance to talk with Cooke about the film.

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Thank you Matthew for talking about Survivor’s Guide to Prison. I learned a lot from watching this documentary and it was really great.
That’s awesome. Thank you so much! That means the world to me.

What inspired you to do this film?
I don’t think it was one thing, but rather a series of observances throughout the course of my life. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been more involved in criminal justice reform. I saw a piece of news of a young 17-boy who was killed in Michigan by a police officer over the flashing of brights. And his name was Deven Guilford. And it was Sergeant [Jonathan] Frost who shot him. It basically was escalated into the point of a physical altercation. I mean, the kid had never been into a fight before. He shot the kid seven times and the officer walked. [Ed. Note: In 2017, the Guilford family reached a settlement in Deven’s death. Click Here for full story] https://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/news/local/2017/11/30/2-4-m-settlement-reached-fatal-shooting-deven-guilford/881662001/

It was actually my birthday when Deven Guilford died. The father of this young man found my number, I can’t remember how, but he called me and I just cried my eyes out. And I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while now in the context of what are we doing with our justice system. Becoming aware of how many things have been dysfunctional about it. And it just struck me as the just the most fundamental public policy issue of all.

How do we address problems between human beings? How do we address what one person does the other one considers it wrong? And we have this giant monstrosity with a giant apparatus. Very driven by money and the means to make money. And they manipulate the rest of us by our emotions into this sort of punishment/revenge thing which doesn’t help victims of crime heal. It doesn’t reduce crime in our society. It doesn’t prevent people from committing crimes. It just serves as the worst aspects of our nature to benefit who? Well, it does benefit money to interest. And essentially, it makes us do the same thing we have been doing for hundreds of years.

If you think about it, where we’re at with using print as the response to any time someone breaks the law. You gotta put them in handcuffs and then put them in prison. And that’s as natural as sitting in the sun. If you think about it in historical context, it’s just the next best solution that we’ve seen since cutting off people’s heads so that’s pretty barbaric. And the next evolutionary step is prison. Well, that’s also really barbaric and stupid. It doesn’t help us become better people. It’s violent. We’re committing to violence when people are put in prison. If that’s our only solution to crime so if we don’t want violence in our society, we can’t be violent towards one another and we can’t use violence as a solution.

This was a film that took quite a few years to get off the ground. How long was the overall process and were there any difficulties that you had to face while working on it?
Oh yeah, we took way too long. It took 5 or 6 years of misery and frustration from myself and my producing partner, Steve DeVore, and all the others who were involved. It took a really, really long time. And there were a number of reasons. We were working on other projects at the same time. And we kept coming across new material. And I kept coming up with better ways to focus on the material. I wanted to hack in as much as I could into 100 minutes in the right order.

I don’t really see this as a film. I mean film is a medium, but it is more of a public service announcement that is done by a filmmaker. I really respect people’s time and if someone wants to spend $5.00, $10.00 to sit in a movie theater or spend whatever it costs to watch it on their phone or their living room, I really want to earn that right and give them something of value. This is my one opportunity. How many times does someone go, “yeah I’m willing to sit down for 90 minutes while you tell me something”? How does it happen? It happens but in a feature film context.

It took five years for me and everyone I was working with to make this the best way to make use of that 90 minutes of your time when you see the movie.

The film focuses on Bruce Lisker (above left) and Reggie Cole, two men who were falsely accused of murder and spent years in prison only to finally be released. When you were developing the film, did their names comes up as to who would be perfect to tell their stories to the audience?
No and I don’t remember how exactly what the order of things were. I think that I had the idea of how to make the movie before I met Bruce, but I can’t remember for sure because that was many years ago. What happened was I met Bruce at a fundraising dinner that was an opposition to the death penalty. They were trying to change and revoke the death penalty in California. Bruce Lisker was a speaker at the dinner. He told his story and I was blown away. I mean, the tears were running down my face. Our co-producer Christina McDowell was there at the dinner as well and I was saying this guy’s story was insane and Bruce is an incredible human being. He’s like the Buddha who went through the incredible experience and became this Zen Master of himself. I don’t want to embarrass him if he reads this but he’s just so wonderful. And I thought his story would be perfect.

And so we are transparent here, I wanted a white innocent man to be the main character of this movie. And the reason why is because a majority of the population of the United States are men and white. And a majority of the population in prison is men. And I wanted to try to introduce white America that what we are doing is insane. So how do you get people to care about people who are behind bars when they are currently aren’t? Like to introduce them to someone who is like themselves and looks like themselves.

We deal with a lot of racism but we did start with a white innocent man and then, I wanted to have a non-white innocent man so that when the audience have trouble identifying someone, not in a patronizing manner, but someone who is not of the same ethnic background, they will see both a white and a non-white man both who are sitting next to each other and going through the same experiences. From their two stories, they will see it’s not about color, but somebody would be there who actually committed the crimes they were prosecuted for and see if you can care about them.

So the whole thing was a carefully constructed film to try to win over the humanity in being able to relate to putting themselves in the shoes of anybody.

That’s great! Well, so many celebrities were involved with this film, including some who have had the experience of being imprisoned at one point in their lives. How did you manage to have so many involved in this film?
They really are all heroes of mine. These are people whose work I’ve either seen or those who have inspired me or whose music I listen to growing up or today. I thought I would ask anyone who meant something to me or people who would really care about this issue connect. I could have 50 or 100 more artists join in, and I think this is an issue which people really are compassionate about or really care about.

I had my incredible producing team go out and ask them on my behalf. The Arquettes are old family friends of mine, with my family. David’s been the biggest supporter of mine for a good ten years. As well as Adrian Grenier, who I met because we were hanging out with the same groups of people in the same town. We were sharing an affinity for whiskey one moment and he became a really good friend of mine and then as a producing partner. So between Adrian and the Arquettes, we had a relationship with a lot of the other producers. They worked their magic and I was honored that they all became part of it.

For those who have yet to see the film, what would you like to tell them? What message would you like to convey with this film?
I would say that Survivor’s Guide to Prison is the story of two amazing human beings who are like poets in the way that they tell you the most insane experience that they had and that’s going to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. And unlike other films that are also wonderful in their own right, this film is not just thinking of the story of these two guys, but also the entire context of how it is that these guys are in this type of situation.

I think it’s an exciting film. I spent five years with my production team constructing something that I hope is really worthy of their time because it’s engaging and entertaining and terrifying. It will teach you so much. You’ll get a college course worth of education in less than 100 minutes and I think it’s going to change the way you see criminal justice and change the way you see public policy. I think it’s worth your ten bucks and an hour and a half of your time.

Are you currently working on developing a new documentary?
Yeah. I’m actually working on a whole slate of documentaries as well as get up-and-running some fiction films that I’ve been writing the last ten years.

Survivor’s Guide to Prison is coming to theaters, VOD, and Digital HD on February 23. This is a great documentary in which everyone can learn from. Thank you again Matthew for talking about the film.
My pleasure and I also think this could also be for people who don’t watch documentaries. It’s for young people who want something they can engage in and yeah, they can check out on iTunes, Digital, theaters. I hope you all enjoy the film.

A special Thank You goes to Katrina Wan PR and Matthew Cooke for making this interview possible. For more information on Matthew and his work, check out his official Twitter page.

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