Matthew Shepard is My Friend

Los Angeles Filmmaker’s Poignant Tribute: Matthew Shepard is My Friend

By Joseph R. Castel

Director Michele Josue’s film debut Matthew Shepard is My Friendis a remarkably profound and intimate portrait of a young man still in search of himself at the time of his death whose senseless murder in 1998 sparked a national movement for hate crime legislation.

The Filipina American filmmaker revisits the shocking case with never-before-seen photos and rare video footage, as Shepard’s life is remembered through vivid testimonies of those who knew him best.

“I was 19 when Matt died and his loss was devastating for me,” recalls Josue. “As his story became an international news event, 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. And as the media stripped my friend of his humanity, I made a promise to myself that when I was emotionally and artistically ready, I would share, with the world, who Matt really was — in the only way I knew how, through film.” In 2010, Josue began her quest to create a cinematic portrait her friend while at the same time coming to terms with her own anger and grief.

Josue narrates the award-winning filmas she retraces her friend’s life through candid interviews with his teachers, classmates and his parents Judy and Dennis Shepard.Josue befriends thefrail looking, gregarious student at a Switzerland boarding school. The filmmaker recalls how she and Shepard struggled with their self-confidence and social awkwardness. “I was short and Matt was short,” she states. Shepard’s stature bordered on skeletal. He was pale, wore braces and stood 5’2” at 102 pounds. What he lacked in brawn, he made up in character and heart.

“He always wanted to be famous,” recalled one interviewee. His mother remembered that he had a penchant for dressing up as Dolly Parton, and “not just on Halloween.” Just as the introvertedstudent emerges from his shell through acting in high school plays with Josue, he suffers a horrendous setback while on a school holiday.

Although most people did not know the senior had been robbed and gang raped in Morocco, friends recall that Shepard was never the same after returning from Marrakesh. His confidence plummeted and he suffered frequent and long bouts of severe depression.Back inWyominghe attends the University in Laramiewhere he attempts to get over his trauma by organizing an LGBT mentoring program. He was starting to identify himself as a gay man and felt the best way to do this was to help others accept themselves for who they were.

Josue skillfully constructs the last hours of Shepard’s life.Still haunted by the loss of her friend,she seeksanswers to painful questions about the night of his murder. One scene is particularly ominous as she peers into the empty, dark tavern with a flashlight where the killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson enticed Shepard into theirpickup truck by pretending to be gay.

At the trial, Henderson insisted that the plan was to just rob the 21-year-old student, but when Shepard touched Henderson, he went into a “gay panic” and began to beat Shepard mercilessly with the butt of a gun.Josue interviews the bartender who served them, the empathetic police officer who found his badly beaten body and the hospital spokesperson who announced Shepard’s death and subsequently received hate mail for showing his unbridled emotion on national television “crying over a faggot.”

Judy and Dennis Shepard, however, give the most heart wrenching testimonies about their sonas they come to grips with forgiving the killers for their inhumane crime. Despite the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty, the Shepard’s agree to accept the defense attorney’s plea bargain for life in prison without the possibility of parole.

At the funeral, the Shepards’grief is compounded by hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church protestors as well as the media’s insatiable appetite for capturing their apparent suffering on national television. The Shepards use their unwanted fame to become leading advocates for LGBT rights and set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation.Judy continues to travel the world teaching communities about tolerance, bullying, and helped launch the hate crimes prevention act, which President Obama signed in 2009.

“The opportunity to tell Matt’s story has also showed mehow incredibly good, beautiful, and just the world can be,” said Josue. “Matt’s storyincludes exemplary police work, tireless activism, and the legislative victory ofthe Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. His storyshows us how love overcomes hate, and mercy surpasses cruelty andintolerance.”

Matthew Shepard is My Friend opens in North Hollywood, February 13 at Laemmle Noho 7.