Ever since 1998, supporters of LGBT civil rights and human dignity have paused during the first week of October to reflect on Matthew Shepard — the 21-year-old Wyoming university student who was abducted, robbed, tortured, beaten within an inch of his life, tied to a fence, and left to die… all because he was gay.
It was one of the most brutal and horrifying anti-gay hate crimes in American history, and it shocked the nation.
Shepard held on, alive but in a coma, for five more days before finally passing away on Oct. 12, 1998. In a remarkable act of selfless compassion, Shepard’s parents intervened to spare his killers the death penalty; they received life sentences instead. Judy and Dennis Shepard co-founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation to advance “social justice, diversity awareness and education, and equality” for LGBT people, and their work continues to this day.
That’s the Matthew Shepard story we all know. But “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine,” a powerful documentary film currently making the festival circuit, aims to show a different side of Matt — not the martyred Matt, but the living Matt, the one his friends knew and loved. Director Michele Josue, herself a childhood friend of Shepard’s, writes:
I was 19 when Matt died and his loss was devastating for me. It’s a hard thing to understand, but as his story became an international news event, my heartbreak and sense of loss only grew as my friend Matt was replaced by “Matthew Shepard,” an historic figure and icon that will forever be associated with unspeakable violence and hate. And as the media stripped my friend of his humanity, I made a promise to myself that when I was emotionally and artistically ready, I would share, with the world, who Matt really was — in the only way I knew how, through film.
Josue takes viewers on a journey across the country and around the world, talking to family members, friends, teachers, and confidantes who were touched by Matt during his all-too-brief life. The portrait her film paints of Shepard is a refreshingly human one: we learn about the ups and downs of his family’s move to Saudi Arabia (for Dennis Shepard’s job), what life was like at the English-language school Matt’s dad’s company paid for him to attend, and discover that Shepard was beaten and raped during a high-school trip to Morocco. The assault left him profoundly traumatized, and through the eyes of his friends and parents, we learn about the depression, anxiety, and panic attacks he experienced afterwards, and the difficulties he encountered as he tried to recover emotionally from the experience while adjusting to college life at the same time.
The film pulls no emotional punches – Josue and her subjects are every bit as frank about Matt’s death and the impact it’s had on them as they are about their memories of his life. We weep with them as they ponder what Shepard might have experienced during his last moments of consciousness, we wonder with them about what his life would have been like had it not been so tragically cut short, we are given a window into their hearts as they struggle to incorporate the loss of their beloved Matt into the fabric of their lives.
“Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine” is a compelling documentary because it goes beyond the headlines to show Matthew Shepard as a human being. Even if you’ve followed Matt’s story from the beginning, it’s worth watching — no less than Judy and Dennis Shepard say the film taught them more about the person their son was.
Matthew Shepard isn’t just a victim of a hate crime or an icon of LGBT history. He was funny, kind, outgoing, and loyal — a son, a brother, and a friend.
“Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” is now available on DVD.