The lovingly detailed, moving documentary “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” tells the story of Matthew Shepard’s tragically short life.
In October 1998, two men in their earlier 20s robbed and beat Shepard, a 21-year-old gay college student at the University of Wyoming. The long, brutal beating left the 5-foot-2-inch, 110-pound Shepard in a coma. He died Oct. 12, 1998, at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Michele Josue, a friend of Shepard’s whom he’d met while attending boarding school in Switzerland, directed, produced and edited “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine.” It’s among the most intimate, personal documentaries ever produced. Josue also narrates the film and she appears on camera.
In her director’s statement, Josue says the media coverage of Shepard’s murder never showed the person she knew and loved.
“As his story became an international news event,” the director says, “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.”
Josue shares her thoughts and emotions throughout the film. So do Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis, and the slain young man’s many friends.
“I miss my friend,” Josue adds. “And I’m not ready to let him go.”
Josue assembles a deep portrait of a sensitive young man who struggled to find his place in this world. In addition to Shepard’s parents and friends, she speaks to law enforcement officials, a hospital administrator, the bartender who served Shepard and his murderers prior to the robbery and beating and the priest who conducted Shepard’s funeral service.
News clips of the murder, the succeeding court cases and Shepard’s memorial service (anti-gay protesters demonstrated outside of the church) take viewers to the times and places.
Shepard’s parents share family photos, home movies and mementos with Josue. They speak candidly. In a few scenes, Dennis Shepard holds a stuffed rabbit, Oscar, the toy his son loved as a child and carried everywhere. Both parents say that they loved their son unconditionally.
The documentary includes probably the happiest period of Shepard’s life, his time at a boarding school for American high school students in Switzerland. Classmates voted him the friendliest person in class.
Shepard’s friends and family also speak of the tragedy that befell and changed him during a school trip to Morocco. By 1998, Walt Boulden, his friend and former guidance counselor, tells Josue that Shepard, then a student the University of Wyoming, thought his life was turning around for the better.
“It was probably only a couple of weeks before Matt was killed that he told me for the first time that he felt safe in Laramie,” Boulden says.
The film also features President Bill Clinton’s statement about Shepard’s death and footage of President Barack Obama signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.
Josue absolutely succeeds in putting a human face on the friend who became famous for such an appalling reason.
“How could complete strangers hate someone who I knew was so gentle, so good, so kind?” she asks.