Nearly 17 years ago, on the night of October 6, 1998, a 21-year-old man named Matthew Shephard was kidnapped, tortured and left to die in a remote area east of Laramie, Wyoming, for one simple reason: He was gay.
For the public, “Matthew Shepard” became the face of a civil rights movement, summoning the LGBT community and its supporters — as well as its opposition — in full force to this quiet town. And as evident in the documentary Matthew Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, helmed by Shepard’s childhood friend Michele Josue, the public may have gained a martyr, but for his friends and family, they lost their beloved “Matt.”
Up until now, people may only know that this young man’s death brought us powerful changes like the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. Or they may have seen any one of the numerous depictions of the events surrounding his death, the most notable being The Laramie Project, a 2002 Emmy-nominated TV Movie.
Josue’s documentary, however, is set to prove that there was to more to Shepard than the legacy that his tragic death brought by reintroducing audiences to the spirit of an outgoing, flawed and ambitious young man whose presence, albeit short-lived, was a legacy in and of itself.
In addition to being both a heartfelt tribute and a time capsule, Matthew Shepard Is a Friend of Mine — which has won numerous awards, including the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Toronto’s Inside Out Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival — also explores Josue’s own journey of acceptance and healing. For the first time, she visits Laramie, a place that only brings her a haunting reminder of how her friend was a victim to an immoral act.
With the film’s theatrical release in 12 markets this month, we spoke with Michele Josue to talk in detail about the significance of the film and Matthew Shepard’s story.
‘Matthew Shepard Is a Friend of Mine‘ continues to screen around the country, opening in Palm Springs on March 6 and Hartford on March 13, 2015.
Before your documentary, ‘Matthew Shepard Is a Friend of Mine,’ the public only knew “Matthew Shepard” from how he was depicted in the media — a martyr whose tragic death was the catalyst for a historical LGBT civil rights movement. The film essentially reintroduces audiences to “Matt,” whose persona is brought back to life through stories by those who knew and loved him. We get to meet an ambitious, outgoing, compassionate, and complex individual. How important is it to show the humanity behind this symbolic figure?
I think it’s very important. As Matt’s friend, it is important to me that people begin to understand that Matt was so much more than a victim and the horrific way in which he died. Matt was a young person, searching to find his place in the world. He had hopes and dreams and struggles just like everyone else.
I think that when many people watch the film and come to understand Matt’s life, they will most probably recognize a part of themselves in his story. Also, hopefully, from connecting to Matt’s story from this more human point of view, many will be able to understand the true depth of the tragedy and understand that with their choices, they can spread compassion and acceptance and prevent crimes like this from taking place in the future.
Since this documentary is helmed by one of the subject’s closest friends, people may go into it with the assumption that it will paint an idealized image of Matthew. But you do the opposite by presenting us with a thorough analysis of Matthew’s life, refusing to ignore all of the demons he faced prior to his death. Ultimately, the exposure of his life’s struggles — which included depression and his unfulfilled longing for human connection — are only going to further make his story more relatable, especially to LGBT youth. What was the biggest challenge in gathering all of these anecdotes about your friend and presenting him how his loved ones knew him, in both good and bad moments, to the world?
Again, it was really important to me and to everyone involved with the film that we stayed true to who Matt was—flaws and all. We worked hard to create an honest, sensitive portrait that didn’t gloss over his dark moments, because Matt’s struggles and his depression were a part of who he was too. With that being said, it was still quite difficult to relive and reflect upon those times and the pain that Matt had gone through in his all-too-brief life.
‘Matthew Shepard Is a Friend of Mine’ is being released amidst the 25th anniversary of the passing of the 1990 Hate Crimes Statistics Act. Congress made amendments to it in 2009 via the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act to include “actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.” Do you hope that this documentary will raise more awareness about hate crimes and people’s rights?
Definitely. Even almost 17 years after Matt’s death, many LGBT people all over the world still face the threat of violence for who they are. It’s crucial that people reconnect to Matt’s story or learn about it the first time, so that history doesn’t repeat itself.
Along with paying tribute to Matthew as a son, brother and friend, this documentary is also about your own personal journey to healing, understanding and moving forward from his loss. Was it a difficult decision to put yourself in front of the camera, allowing the audience to see you in such vulnerable and private moments?
It was a very difficult choice to put myself in the film. It took a lot of convincing from the team, as I was extremely hesitant to place myself in the narrative and to relive such painful memories in front of the camera. However, after many discussions, we all came to the conclusion that the film would benefit from the unique and personal point of view of someone who actually knew and cared about Matt.
But so many people involved with the film or who supported the film knew and cared about Matt. So it was a wonderful, collective effort to tell his story in this personal, intimate way.
Despite the fact that Matthew died over 16 years ago, the documentary’s title, ‘Matthew Shepard Is a Friend of Mine,’ is in present tense. Was the reason for this to signify the undeniable presence and influence that he continues to have today in the lives of those he’s inspired?
Exactly. The present tense of the title conveys that Matt will always be with us and that we still feel the impact of his presence and friendship to this day. Beyond that, the title is a mission statement. I want people who view the film to walk away feeling that Matt could have been a friend of theirs too.
The Huffington Post recently published an article by Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard, in which she discussed the significance of the documentary and her son’s legacy today. She also acknowledged that his friends knew things about him that even she and her husband, Dennis Shepard, were unaware of. “Every time Dennis and I watch it, we see something different,” she wrote. What were the most surprising things that you discovered about him in the process of making ‘Matthew Shepard Is a Friend of Mine’?
Honestly, I was surprised to learn about how Matt was struggling. I realize there are different facets to everyone’s identity, and the Matt that I knew always seemed so happy, fun, and gregarious. It was sad to learn how he was struggling inside.
I also was so surprised to find his writings and the piles of unsent letters and postcards he had written to his friends and family. They were all such beautiful, sensitive, thoughtful letters. I had missed his voice and forgotten so many things about him over time, so it was really great to find all those things. We were really happy to include his writings in the film and to allow Matt the opportunity to voice his own story.
Filming, which began in fall of 2010, following a year of research and preparation, took advantage of the small budget by using vintage cameras to bring a nostalgic and intimate atmosphere for the viewer. I assume that this also helped make your interview subjects more comfortable, diminishing the tension that a bigger set may have created. Can you explain your reasoning behind it?
That was a lot of our reasoning. I wanted to stay small and mobile, since we had to do so much travel in the course of filming. But mainly, since the subject matter of the film is so personal and emotional, I wanted to create a filming atmosphere that felt unobtrusive and, most importantly, safe.
In one of the many standout moments from ‘Mathew Shepard Is a Friend of Mine,’ Judy confesses to you that she was fully aware of the craving for dramatics that the media, who were present at the funeral, wanted her to convey. As hard as it was to not break down and mourn for her son, she did her best to keep her composure in front of the cameras. This strength is evident whenever she spoke about her son in your interviews. What did you learn from her about the strength of the human spirit after getting to know her better during filmmaking?
I learned about the resiliency of the human spirit. I learned how we all have choices in life, and how we all have the ability to choose to live our lives with acceptance, compassion, and courage.
Likewise, Matthew’s father, Dennis, also presented himself with a quiet dignity in the face of a horrific incident that no parent should ever endure. In a shocking move, he and his wife decided to spare the life of his murderers. His speech, which was used in “The Laramie Project,” was also read in your documentary. What can people learn from Matthew’s parents?
Judy and Dennis are very kind, down-to-earth people. They’re also extraordinary people who live their lives with such integrity, courage, and strength. I’m continually in awe of them and am inspired by how they work so tirelessly for all the Matt Shepards out there who are in need of support, love, and acceptance. I think a lot of people can learn so much about the human spirit from learning about their story and how they responded to Matt’s death.
Matthew’s death robbed two parents of their son, a teenager of an older brother, and countless others of a loving, unique and funny friend. In addition, the media attention that followed his death also robbed his loved ones of a chance to mourn in private. But in the aftermath of his death, there was a silver lining. The world took a stand against homophobic crime, campaigning for better rights on behalf of minorities across the nation. The most tremendous results include the inception of both the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act. Why do think it still has to take a jaw-dropping, heinous crime to occur for the world, and not just media, to recognize issues and to make changes?
I really wish I had the answer to that question. I think perhaps a lot of it has to do with the fast-paced, crowded media landscape we all live in. With our 24-hour news cycle, the sensationalist headlines, and the vast internet, we’re continually bombarded with so much content and imagery. It takes a lot to capture people’s attention amidst all that noise. So sadly, the truly egregious crimes are the ones that make people take notice. I wish it wasn’t this way. I wish our society was a lot less reactive and a lot more proactive about dealing with the underlying issues that motivate these types of crimes.
I must admit that I did not know about the Matthew Shepard story prior to seeing this documentary. I was only 7 when he died. Many others in my generation may not be aware of it because they were either too sheltered or too young. What do you want young adults and teenagers today to learn from how Matthew led his life?
Matt was such a kind-hearted, generous, exuberant person. But he wasn’t perfect and he wasn’t a martyr, which is very important for people to remember. Matt faced many struggles and challenges in his life, like we all do, but what was so admirable about him was that he always worked hard to overcome them. He always worked hard to find his happiness. In fact, he was on the right path and emerging from his depression when he moved to Laramie.
Although ‘Matthew Shepard Is a Friend of Mine’ marks your first time directing a feature-length film, people may not know that you’ve worked for a decade as a director, producer and editor in Los Angeles. Do you plan to make more features? If so, can you tell us about your future projects?
Yes, I definitely plan to make many more films. We’re in development on a few different projects, but it’s a bit too early to talk about them. But I’m really excited to start on something new.