BY AJ TRAGER
DETROIT – The LGBT community was forever changed in October 1998 when a 21-year-old university student fell victim to a hate crime in Laramie, Wyoming. Seventeen years and four films later, Matthew Shepard’s death and story comes to Cinema Detroit through the eyes of loved ones and never before seen footage of Shepard’s life.
Many movies were made in response to Shepard’s murder: “The Laramie Project” is a three-act play that drew out the experiences from hundreds of community interviews that were conducted after his death; “The Matthew Shepard Story” followed the trial of Shepard’s killers; “Dear Jesse,” a documentary about U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, features an interview with Shepard; and “Laramie Inside Out” explores the repercussions of Shepard’s murder on the town of Laramie. Now, for the first time ever, his story will be told through the eyes of those he held most dear, including the film’s director, Michele Josue, who met Shepard while attending high school in Switzerland.
“Those types of projects dealt with Matt’s murder as an event and the aftermath and how that affected the community,” Josue said. “As friends we were interested in sharing the real Matt and what he meant to us; to portray him not as a martyr but as someone with flaws and who fought against depression.”
Josue met Shepard in the early ’90s through the theatre department at The American School in Switzerland, an international boarding school. Josue was a few years behind Shepard in study, but living in close proximity to her peers, Josue became very close to Shepard. They kept in contact after he graduated in 1995 through phone calls and written letters.
She describes the months directly following his death as a media circus, as society became fixated on Shepard’s life. The country then called for updates to statewide and federal hate-crimes laws. After years of work, the Matthew Shepard Act, introduced in 2001, was finally adopted in 2009 and expanded the federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation and have traveled the world speaking out against LGBT hate crimes by sharing their son’s story. They have kept many of his belongings, including a box of home video tapes consisting of over 100 hours of Shepard’s personal footage. Josue reviewed the poignant memories that Shepard filmed, getting closer to seeing what her friend was thinking and feeling.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve heard his voice. So to come across those videos, his journal entries, notebooks and postcards — I am so grateful that Matt was able to be in the film so palpably. I am grateful to be better friends with Judy and Dennis. They were always Matt’s mom and dad. It’s been powerful to know them on this level to witness first hand their courage. Judy is sharing her story and reliving her pain to affect a sort of change so that this doesn’t happen to other people,” Josue said.
She began filming in 2010 and encountered some financial hurdles along the way but found alternative ways of raising money, including a Kickstarter that raised over $100,000 from around a thousand supporters. She finished the film and began touring the film festival circuit in 2013, including a special showing at Manny de Guerre, the LGBT film festival in St. Petersburg, Russia. Josue is always surprised that Shepard’s story translates for people from many different backgrounds and that they are moved to reflect on their own experiences and see similarities in his story.
The filming and editing process has been a long journey for Josue, uncovering a lot of memories and emotions previously over-looked due to the chaos that developed shortly after Shepard’s death.
“We (Shepard’s family and friends) didn’t have the opportunity to grieve him. We were all across the world. We didn’t live near each other and couldn’t commiserate together and what resulted was a lot of things being pushed underneath the surface, all the feelings that we didn’t deal with,” Josue said. “So making this film, we were all able to come together collectively and remember him in this specific way. We were able to remember him as a human being and not as an icon.”
It’s important to remember what had to happen to get the LGBT community to where it is today. The late ’90s had a different attitude towards LGBT rights and inclusions; Shepard himself wasn’t comfortable coming out to Josue and his other friends, and the intolerance he received from others over his sexual orientation cost him his life. Josue wishes that she had the opportunity to support her friend in his identity but says that the process of collaborating, creating and developing the documentary has made her feel closer to him.
“Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” comes to Cinema Detroit this week for the Michigan debut and will run for seven evenings beginning Feb. 20. Tickets are $8 and can be purchased in advance at http://ticketing.us.veezi.com/sessions/?siteToken=xqz727RTzEGBFKUDula9jQ%3D%3D or at the door.