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MATT SHEPARD IS A FRIEND OF MINE (2015) review

February 17, 2015

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written by: Michele Josue
produced by: Michele Josue, Liam McNuff and Chad Mann

directed by: Michele Josue

rating: unrated

runtime: 89 min.

U.S. release date: February 13, 2015 (limited – Chicago and Los Angeles)

 

It can be easy to forget the details of a brutal hate crime that made worldwide news back in 1998, especially if you didn’t personally know the victim. What the revealing documentary “Matt Shepard Is A Friend of Mine” effectively reminds us of is how these victims that are often covered and discarded by news outlets had family and friends, they had teachers and parents, just like you and me. That’s because the film is directed by Michele Josue, a good friend since their teen years, who didn’t know the Matthew Shepard we were introduced to, but rather “Matt”, a warm and kind-hearted friend she still mourns. Her film provides a glimpse of who Shepard was, with input from those who knew him intimately and in passing, but it also is most profoundly a look at grief.

Matthew Shepard made news as a gay 21 year-old college student who was beaten and tortured to death by Terry McKinney and Russell Henderson, two young men he met in a bar on the evening of October 6th, 1998. He was left for dead by them on a prairie fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming. After being in a coma, Shepard would eventually die on October 12th that same year. It would be revealed that the fatal attack was due to his sexual orientation, which launched an influential LGBT campaign that eventually led to legislation changes in the form of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.

 

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It certainly wasn’t the way in which Shepard or those who knew him ever thought he would make headlines. Josue’s goal here is to make it known who her friend was (and still is) to her, so that viewers will learn of the kind-hearted and talented young man that he was. It’s an important and poignant approach “Friend of Mine” takes. In humanizing a historic name, it takes us back to what we thought when the reports of Shepard’s attack and eventually death first came in and then, by expanding on Shepard’s backstory and providing details leading up to that fateful attack, it broadens our perspective of how we take in that moment in time.

The director takes on the role of something of a tour guide into Shepard’s past, in a cathartic manner for her and a gateway for us. Sometimes, when a documentary director is also featured in their own film, there’s a tendency to get in the way or upstage the actual subject matter (except for Herzog or Moore), but Josue is so personally invested here that we don’t mind, it’s understandable. Not once does the first-time director get in the way of her own intent. If anything, she is akin to a vessel that connects us to Shepard.

Throughout the film, Josue discusses her friend Matt with his parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, as well as other school friends and guidance counselor, Walt Boulden. His parents talk about how they had a feeling early on that their son was gay and when Shepard finally came out to them his mother asked, “Why’d you wait so long to tell me?” and his father, after hearing a hesitant Matthew state he had something important to say, replied, “What important thing did you want to tell me?”, after his son told him. Such a reaction is indicative of the love and support they unconditional gave their son and their younger son, Logan. There was no way they were going to let their outgoing and optimistic son feel ashamed or unaccepted for who he was. They’re the kind of parents that many gay and lesbian children wish they had in their lives.

 

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Josue became friends with Shepard in Switzerland where they both attended The American School in Switzerland, a boarding school Americans working abroad would send their children. Which is what Shepard’s parents did in 1994, after his father accepted a job with an oil company in Saudi Arabia. It was at this school that Shepard was befriended and embraced by a diverse group of students, some of them are interviewed by Josue and share how Shepard impacted their lives.

This time in Shepard’s life definitely had its hardships though. We learn that while he was on a class trip in Morocco, Shepard was mugged and raped by six men. After that horrific event, Shepard’s behavior was noticeably and understandably different to both his friends and his parents. Knowing this awful experience, one can’t help but think what horrors were going through Shepard’s mind as McKinney and Henderson mercilessly pistol-whipped him to an unrecognizable pulp.

While Shepard’s hardships and eventual tragic ending are on our minds, Josue balances the film with insight into how her friend viewed himself and the world around him. She has various talking heads read Shepard’s letters and journal entries throughout the film. In his own words, we hear how Shepard’s contemplative affirmations. It’s quite heartwrenching to tap into Shepard’s warmth and gentleness through his writings when you consider how he wound up leaving this world.

“Matt Shepard Is A Friend of Mine” delivers an expected revelations in its truthful look at Shepard, but the unexpected moments come when we find Josue struggling with her own grief and anger. This manifests itself during a conversation she has with Father Roger Schmit, a Catholic priest who counseled an imprisoned McKinney. She asks Schmit whether or not he thought Shepard’s killers had any good in their hearts and freezes when he tells her it’s possible. She isn’t ready to see them as human. Schmit sees this and, in an understanding manner, explains that her pain and anger is necessary and she shouldn’t look to rid herself of it, but rather embrace it as she continues to remember Shepard.

That right there is one of the most fulfilling and enlightening scenes in the film. To find such unrehearsed honesty is refreshing and thought-provoking. As the film ends, we get the idea that of all the people we’ve met, Josue has only just begun to tap into her pain and grief. Considering how she has given us such a powerful look at Matthew Shepard, I hope she continues on this path of forgiveness and healing and encourages others to do the same.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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