Dir/scr: Matthew Cooke. US. 2012. 95mins

How To Make Money Selling Drugs

Presented as a slick, satiric instructional film about the benefits of getting into the drug game, the documentary How To Make Money Selling Drugs turns out to be a far more sobering and substantial piece of work than one might expect. As a companion piece of sorts to Eugene Jarecki’s forthcoming doc The House I Live In, which also criticizes America’s failed War on Drugs, writer-director Matthew Cooke’s film is strikingly clear-eyed about the allure of drug dealing, the rampant demand for illegal substances, the horrors of addiction, and the hypocrisy of government drug policy.

There’s an argument to be made that How To Make Money’s slick exterior undermines the seriousness of its subject matter, but Cooke’s deceptively entertaining packaging is skilfully handled.

Screening in the TIFF Docs section, How To Make Money will appeal to the art houses and especially to those fighting to change drug criminalisation laws. Sporting celebrity talking heads including actress Susan Sarandon and rappers Eminem and 50 Cent, the film could attract some mainstream attention as well.

As the film opens, Cooke provides a narration asking the viewer if he or she wants a lucrative job without much experience or education. From there, How To Make Money offers a step-by-step process detailing how anyone can eventually become a drug lord. Each step features interviews with experts (including former drug dealers and law enforcement) so that the viewer can avoid possible pitfalls (such as incarceration or death) and become successful.

At first, How To Make Money’s structuring device seems like little more than a gimmick. But as the documentary rolls along, it becomes obvious that Cooke is utilizing the flashy onscreen graphics to lull the viewer into buying the movie’s get-rich-quick premise.

And he’s gathered some colourful former dealers to tell their stories, which demonstrate just how inviting and, frankly, logical drug trafficking can seem for those who are determined, crafty and desperate enough to make a quick fortune. (As one interviewee mentions, if any of these people had been law-abiding citizens, they might have become wealthy entrepreneurs with the same skill set.)

But the opening chapters are merely a prelude to the film’s true thematic thrust, which is to show how drugs destroy societies in myriad ways — and why current U.S. policy is only exacerbating the problem. Much like The House I Live In, How To Make Money makes a stirring, well-reasoned argument that by demonizing drug users and imposing harsh jail sentences on petty offenders, the government has done nothing to curb the spread of drugs while incarcerating its citizens at rates far greater than other major nations. 

There’s an argument to be made that How To Make Money’s slick exterior undermines the seriousness of its subject matter, but Cooke’s deceptively entertaining packaging is skilfully handled, moving from satire to empathy and anger for the lives destroyed in the drug wars.

And while Cooke clearly favours decriminalisation, he doesn’t shy away from the real devastation that addiction can bring. (Several of the film’s former dealers speak eloquently about the years of their lives lost to addiction, and Eminem is particularly moving describing his struggles.) There may not be much new information about the idiocy of the War of Drugs in How To Make Money, but with its calm focus and emotional wallop, its argument has rarely been so effectively rendered. 

Production companies: Bert Marcus Productions, Reckless Productions

International sales: ICM Partners, www.icmtalent.com

Producers: Bert Marcus, Adrian Grenier

Cinematography: Matthew Cooke

Editors: Matthew Cooke, Jeff Cowan

Music: Spencer Nezey

Website: http://www.howtomakemoneysellingdrugs.com/

Featuring: 50 Cent, “Freeway” Rick Ross, David Simon, Russell Simmons, Eminem, Susan Sarandon, Woody Harrelson