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MATT SHEPARD IS A FRIEND OF MINE (review)

matt-shepard-is-a-friend-of-mineMATT SHEPARD IS A FRIEND OF MINE

Written and Directed by Michele Josue

From Matthew Shepard’s handwritten journals: I am formal and polite. I am sensitive. I am honest. I am sincere. I love helping. I love hugs.  

On the evening of October 6, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard went to a local bar to unwind with a few beers. Hours later, on a remote, rural piece of land outside of Laramie, Wyoming, two young men robbed him of his keys, wallet and shoes. He was then repeatedly beaten, pistol whipped with the butt end of a 357 Magnum 18 times on the head. Matthew was then tied to a fence, set on fire and was left unconscious. Eighteen hours after the attack, he was found by a student riding his bike, thinking the body on the fence was that of a scarecrow. Matthew’s face was covered in blood, aside from the tear tracks on each side of his cheek. Matthew Shepard’s crime? He was gay.

I first saw the documentary, MATT SHEPARD IS A FRIEND OF MINE, directed by one of Matt’s close friends, Michele Josue, at the Toronto Inside Out Film Festival in 2014 and was emotionally wrung dry. A second viewing of this powerful film has not diminished that initial impact on me. The tears flowed so often that my contact lenses may now be forever lubricated.

First time directing a feature film, Josue skillfully weaves home movies, pictures and Matt’s journals together, while interviews with family and friends paint a picture of a loving, joyous, adventurous, young man. He was a dutiful son, a supportive older brother and the life-of-the-party to his friends. Despite these happy, positive stories, it is impossible not to notice the sadness in the eyes of the people on screen as they recall the happy times – especially in the eyes of Matt’s parents, Judy and Dennis. While in the 10th grade, the Shepard family moved to Saudi Arabia; from there, Matt was sent to an international boarding school in Lugano Switzerland. This is where he met and befriended Josue. Just before graduating high school while away with his fellow classmates and friends on a school organized trip to Marrakesh Morocco, Matthew was robbed and brutally raped by six men in a deserted alleyway. He was never the same person again.

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Little is said and shown in the film of that fateful night when Matthew met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the men he met at the bar the night he died. Minimal time is also spent on the trial that garnered international attention, where both McKinney and Henderson were convicted of murder and were sentenced to serve two consecutive life sentences. Wisely, instead of dedicating screen time to the trial, Josue focuses on the healing processes Matt’s friends and family went through, all the while experiencing events either absolutely heinous or inspiring. An ugly scene where mourners attending Matt’s funeral are greeted by Christian fundamentalists waving “GOD HATES FAGS” placards and spewing mind boggling hateful slogans is countered with one where the hospital administrator, unable to hide the emotions in his voice, announces to the press that Matthew Shepard had succumbed to his injuries. And the heartbreak doesn’t stop there either. Imagine watching Matt’s father read the words he delivered in court, asking the judge and jury not to impose the death penalty to the two men that brutally murdered his son.

MATT SHEPARD IS A FRIEND OF MINE takes an LGBT martyr and humanizes him as a person. Many great things have happened because of this inhumane atrocity. President Obama passed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act in October 2009 and the Matthew Shepard Foundation was established to “Replace hate with understanding, compassion, and acceptance” by continuing to tell Matthew’s story through education, outreach, and advocacy programs. That said, there is still much to be done as bullied gay teenagers are still committing suicide in unacceptable numbers.

Matthew Shepard said that he wanted to be famous and he is. His short life and tragic death inspired so many to do better and, thanks to films like this, continues to do so.

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