Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine (2014)

Writer & Director: Michele Josue
Cinematographer: Craig Trudeau
Composer: Nicholas Jacobson-Larson

As I mentioned in another blog post, I teach college students. This semester in my writing classes one of the essays we analyzed and studied was a selection of Beth Loffreda’s 2001 nonfiction book Losing Matt Shepard. The book details the 1998 murder of 21 year old Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming and the effects it had on the community and the rest of the country. In spite of other murders and attacks on members of the LGBT community, even during the same year, Matthew Shepard’s murder resonated in unanticipated ways. Here was a young blond white man who looked even younger, who had been brutally beaten and left for dead, only to die shortly later in the hospital after his injuries proved to be unsurmountable, and all because of his sexuality.

With my class we discussed the role the media played in how they treated the story, how Laramie became synonymous with hate crimes, we discussed the elevation of Matthew to a symbol, which in turn dehumanized him in similar ways to what it took to beat and kill him in the first place, and we investigated the language used in telling this story and the repercussions these events had on the identities and behaviors of the witnesses, neighbors, and citizens of the country. What was missing, though, was Matthew himself. Our text was focused more on the aftermath and on the city of Laramie and on the power of media and news, but Matthew and his family, and even his real friends, were nowhere to be found.

The other day I was scrolling through the documentary section of Netflix and came across this one, and since I had just spent a good portion of the semester with this story and had read a vast array of student papers on it, I thought it would be good to hear a different perspective, told in collaboration with Matthew’s parents and by a close friend and classmate of the boy who became a symbol of martyr and homophobia.

The documentary does a very good job at humanizing the young man who would be in his late thirties today. All the people interviewed were actually close to him: childhood friends, his parents, classmates, mentors, teachers. Missing are the celebrities who spoke at his vigil or the opportunists who wanted to use his death for political or social reasons, even Loffreda herself is never mentioned in the documentary. This is entirely due to the fact that Josue, a close friend of Matt’s from their boarding school days in Switzerland, helms the project and remains in control of the narrative throughout, with a particular blessing from Matt’s mother who acknowledges that it is time for the world to hear about the Matt that his friends knew (Judy Shepard has written her own account in the book The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie).

The film is in part a biography, tracing Matthew’s childhood in Wyoming, the family’s move to Saudi Arabia, the young man’s schooling in Switzerland, his failed college career, and eventual return, on his own, to his home state. While the murder, the culprits’ trial, and the subsequent effects are discussed and depicted, they are all framed from the perspective of those who knew him, which is what sets this project apart and gives it a beating heart.

Early on in the documentary Josue said that everyone knew and had heard about Matthew Shepard but that she wanted to introduce the world to her friend Matt. She can now take comfort in knowing that she has done just that.

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