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Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine | Review

Far Away So Close: Josue Pays Personal Homage to Memory of Murdered Friend

Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine PosterHis name now synonymous with progressive social policy, Matthew Shepard, the young gay man murdered in 1998, would come to represent a generation of bullied, battered and butchered LGBT American youths. At last, he receives a moving, often devastatingly sorrowful homage in Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, a documentary from his close friend and first time filmmaker Michele Josue. There have been other significant filmed documents attempting to grapple with his horrific demise, most notably the 2002 television film adaptation of Moises Kaufman’s play The Laramie Project, which featured a star studded cast. Now, nearing seventeen years since his death, Josue finally was able to assemble a more personal ode to Shepard, something that was initially discouraged by Shepard’s mother. The only trouble is, though often meaningful and loving, it’s a document that seems unnecessary, especially considering the time that’s lapsed. This seems to be Josue’s point, to create a film that is a means to remember Shepard as the caring and cared for individual taken unfairly to his grave by the homophobic hatred culturally indoctrinated in his ignorant assailants.

At the end of the day, it matters not what kind of man Matthew Shepard was. The fact that he was clearly and absolutely without a doubt slain for his sexual orientation, something that’s occurred to countless others across various cultures and timeframes, is the inexcusable truth of the matter. Racial and class dynamics also played a hand in this perfect storm that made Shepard the poster child for a cause desperately in need of an icon. His death marks a new chapter in the impetus for social progression. In today’s markedly changed landscape, it’s certainly important that his murder is not forgotten—but Josue’s well-meaning and effectively emotional doc is a side note, and perhaps, fire to the angry embers that should be alive in all those humans still hungry for equality in the face of indefatigable reminders of mankind’s proclivity for hatred.

After opening with the haunting shot of the fence where his beaten body was discovered, Josue leads with a tight focus on Shepard’s pleasant youthful existence with loving parents Judy and Dennis. His mother discusses her early realizations that Matt was gay with his desire to dress up as Dolly Parton for Halloween, through preparation for the event often took place before the holiday. It appears Matt struggled with the idea of coming out to his parents for years before actually doing so, but he came out initially to an older mentor before being uprooted from Wyoming to Saudi Arabia for his father’s work while in the 10th grade. From there, he attended a boarding school in Switzerland, where Shepard met Josue. A small class trip to Morocco during that time period would apparently irreparably scar Shepard, who claimed to have been raped by six men one night. Considering the time, place and period in Shepard’s life, the vague version of the incident may not have been related to Shepard’s friends in its truthful entirely, but it’s cited as a turning point in Shepard’s change in demeanor from a confident young man to a shy and secretive one.

Depression issues while living in Denver led Shepard back to his small home town of Laramie and Josue’s doc becomes more serious as she breaches Shepard’s murder at the hands of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. There are several, unrehearsed heartrending moments, such as when Josue breaks down into tears while interviewing the priest that provided spiritual guidance to McKinney during the trial. Attempted moments of poetic visualization begin to occur as Josue’s solitary, perambulating figure is shown to walk off into distant, beautifully photographed horizons, or other desolate areas of Laramie.

It’s taken almost two decades for friends and family of Shepard to open up so candidly about the man they knew, loved, and lived with. With President Clinton publicly recognizing and admonishing the terrible hatred that was the result of Shepard’s death, footage of the Shepard’s being congratulated by President Obama in 2009 as he signs the hate crimes bill into law is a glowing testament to how far we’ve come since 1998. And, perhaps inadvertently, Josue’s powerful statement here is the absence of those eight dark years of the Bush Administration that only served to stall the progression of equal rights.

With miles to go before we sleep, it’s important to remember the unfortunate tragedies that have had to occur in order for the LGBT community to gain visibility, and how important it is to retain documents of how gifted, normal, and absolutely human they were. Names like Brandon Teena, Alan Turing, Christine Jorgensen, Quentin Crisp, and many others provide just the cinematic tip of awareness, and perhaps one day we can see more varied and diverse reenactments and documentaries from a plethora of perspectives. Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is a beautiful eulogy from the type of loving friend we’d all be lucky to have.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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