I can still remember the day that my best friend killed herself. It was a couple years ago, but the wound still feels as fresh as it was then. She was this delightful "whole" human being, admittedly a human being who'd had her own share of traumas and dramas, yet a human being who'd created a full life and who made a difference in the world just by being in it.
Then, she took her own life and that became her legacy.
I've always wondered about Matthew Shepard.
I'm not talking about THAT Matthew Shepard. I know how Matthew Shepard's life ended. We all know how his life ended - his savagely beaten body left for dead strapped to the fence on a rural Wyoming farm. When President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, Matthew Shepard became forever associated with that heinous act and with social justice issues that remain relevant to this day.
Yet, sometimes we forget that there's more. We forget that Matthew Shepard wasn't simply a gay man or a murder victim or a victim of a hate crime.
He was human.
Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, written and directed by Michele Josue, serves up a tender and loving reminder of that humanity in all its fullness or at least as much of its fullness as Shepard himself had discovered at the time of his death.
On a certain level, it's undeniable that Josue violates what many consider to be a fundamental rule of filmmaking by actually being a part of the story. There's simply no questioning that she is, in fact, at the fundamental roots of Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, yet that's a truth the film never denies and it's a truth that really drives the film's emotional resonance.
Josue paints a lifelong portrait of Shepard, utilizing interviews with Shepard's friends and family along with archival footage, photographs, and her own experiences as she travels to Wyoming, a place she never really thought she'd go, and Middle East locales. A boarding school friend of Shepard's while his family was living in Saudi Arabia and he was being schooled in Switzerland, Josue's film appears to be both a full portrait of Shepard and a healing journey for herself.
The film has picked up a slew of film festival awards, both audience and jury prizes, including Best Film at the Cleveland International Film Festival, Best Documentary at Atlanta's Out on Film, the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Toronto's Inside Out Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival, and quite a few others. The film is preparing for a theatrical release via Run Rabbit Run Media beginning later this month and one can only hope that it finds the audience that it so richly deserves.
While much of Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is warm and sentimental, Josue doesn't shy away from the difficult. This includes an interview with a priest who has served Shepard's convicted killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, and who calls for their lives to be seen through a lens of humanity, a request that Josue herself tearfully acknowledges being unable to honor.
Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine doesn't focus on Shepard's death, but it also doesn't shy away from it. Painfully, we also learn things we may have not known about Shepard's life. I certainly learned things about Shepard I did not know, ranging from his gang rape while vacationing in Morocco with friends, an incident that dramatically impacted Shepard's life for years and likely influenced his life up until his death, to many of the details that surrounded Shepard's death and the fact that his mother, who has become a fierce advocate for LGBT youth, opposed the death penalty for his killers.
The film doesn't so much answer questions as it does paint a much more complete portrait of the beauty and wonder that was Matthew Shepard, an approach that makes his already tragic death feel that much more tragic and deeply, painfully personal.
For more information on Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, visit the film's website linked to in the credits. If you get a chance, you'll definitely want to see the film for yourself.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic