MATT SHEPARD IS A FRIEND OF MINE
Director: Michele Josue
Running Time: 1:29
Release Date: 2/6/15 (limited); 2/13/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 12, 2015
After going through the grisly details of Matthew Shepard's brutal murder at the hands of two men who targeted the 21-year-old college student because they determined he was gay, Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine provides a montage of the flood of news reports about the attack. The one that sticks out offers this description of the victim: "Matthew Shepard, a gay man." It's striking for two reasons. The first is that we have gotten to know Shepard as well as can be expected from testimonials by family and friends, so that three-word description following his name would be laughably deficient, if not for the fact that there is nothing even slightly amusing about the circumstances in which the description was made. The second reason is that the description mirrors the thought process of Shepard's killers.
"A gay man" is all that Shepard was to Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson when they spotted him at a bar on the night of October 6, 1998. They admitted to coming up with a plan in the bathroom of the bar to pretend to be gay, gain the trust of this complete stranger, and rob him. Their primary motivation was because they figured he was only the same three words attributed to him by the news report: "a gay man."
Hearing that phrase in that moment and within that context stings—not just because it is, sadly, the most succinct and accurate way to describe Shepard in connection with the crime perpetrated against him. It's also because we are painfully aware that it is Shepard's legacy. During his all-too short life, Matthew—"Matt" to those who knew him—Shepard was many things: a son, an older brother, a friend, a student, a kid who would write poems and put them in mailboxes around town to try to brighten his neighbors' day, a guy who was always at the center of any gathering of which he was a part, and a depressed young man struggling to understand his place in the world and trying to find a place where he would feel at home.
Shepard's murder took away everything he could have been, and in a way, it also deprived the world of everything he was. We only know him as "Matthew Shepard, a gay man" who was viciously beaten after being tied to a fence in a remote area on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming.
Director Michele Josue has a personal stake with the film—not in correcting the public image of Shepard but in expanding it to more than three words followed by an account of a crime. She knew Shepard. She was one of his best friends when they both attended an American boarding school in Switzerland, as both of their families had moved overseas for work.
Josue's film (her first) is a work of raw, unfiltered emotion. It is as much about a filmmaker searching for answers as it is about the life, death, and legacy of the film's subject. It's Shepard's story as seen through the eyes of someone who is still unclear about who her friend was, still in pain over the loss, and still confused about what his murder means in some grander scheme. We too often debate whether or not a documentary should strive for "objectivity." Here is, once again, additional evidence in favor of the argument that subjectivity is not only unavoidable but also a means of uncovering truth.
An "objective" look into Shepard's life and death might have followed the same basic layout. The film is assembled from interviews with family and friends, home videos and photographs of Shepard's domestic life and travels around the world, and a breakdown of the crime and the subsequent trial that has Josue travelling to scene of the assault with police officials, who are still haunted by what they found, and archival news footage.
It's not the general approach that matters as much as the specific pieces. The interviews are intimate and forthright. Could an objective or uninvolved party have gained as much trust as Josue does?
She finds Shepard's friends from different times in his life. Even decades after the last time they saw or spoke to him, these friends still want to share stories about a teenager or a young man who made them feel special and who seemed too happy to be in such turmoil over his sexuality. Most of his friends, including Josue, admit that they were shocked and hurt when they learned Shepard was gay—not because of the fact itself but because they wish he would have told them. They wish they could have helped to make him feel as comfortable with himself as he made them feel.
He did tell his parents, Judy and Dennis. Judy suspected as much from the time her son was a boy, and Dennis relates how his son prompted the discussion as needing to tell him "something important." After hearing his son say that was gay, Dennis downplayed the announcement to show it didn't change a thing about his feelings. "Matt is my son," he says; "He always will be."
These people give Josue access to Shepard's journals and letters. They have the same disbelief about things they didn't know when they knew him. Josue and Judy share an impromptu embrace after Judy says something that affects the filmmaker enough that she has to stop the interview. When Josue visits the priest who visited one of Shepard's killers, what he says about the murderers completely shatters her view of them. The camera keeps rolling as the priest tries to find some way of comforting the filmmaker with wise, honest words about how anger will and should remain but, more importantly, how it can be directed. No objective account would include this scene, but it's vital here as a step in Josue's pursuit of meaning.
None of these people has any idea how to reconcile the kind-hearted person they knew and loved with the savagery of the crime that ended his life. The film details the five days between when Shepard was found and when he ultimately died. Dennis drove four hours to the family home to find a stuffed rabbit that his son adored. When he finds it later, he takes it as a sign that it's now his to cherish. The father reads his plea to take the death penalty off the table for the convicted murderers of his son. His hands shake even now as he recites it—a beautiful, poetic appeal for mercy for two men who showed none.
Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine is an emotionally wrenching film. If there is an answer here, it's that grief is a constant, and Josue fearlessly allows us to share in hers and offers a powerful glimpse into the shared grief of others.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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