Funny. Smart. Sincere. Irritable. Gay. Cute. Humble. These are just some of the adjectives used by Matthew Shepard to describe himself in an ongoing series of journal entries that he mostly kept a secret from his friends, his family, everyone. Shepard was a young gay man from Laramie, Wyoming whose brutal murder sent ripples of grief and stringent awareness from the middle of the country all the way to the coasts. I suspect Shepard kept this diary (where all entries begin with “I am…”) to allow himself some sense of belonging in a world that so often denied him that basic human right. The new documentary “Matt Shepard Was A Friend Of Mine” —directed by Shepard’s childhood friend Michele Josue, who conducts some shattering interviews with Shepard’s schoolmates, family friends and his understandably devastated parents— sheds some light not just on the heinous details of the crime that ultimately left Shepard in a coma for days before his death, but also on the person he was before that horrible night. It’s a moving, sincere piece of work possibly motivated less by a desire to expose a homophobic epidemic in the heartland and more by the need to remember and honor the life of a young man the filmmakers considered to be a friend: a kind, outgoing human being whose only crime, in the eyes of his community, was his sexual orientation.
The film opens with a shot of a wide-open prairie and a length of fence. The shot is impossibly eerie because we know what happened in that prairie, and what particularly grisly purpose that fence served on the night of October 6th, 1998. After the various snippets of media outrage over Shepard’s murder that open the doc, including some sickening footage of what appears to be the Westboro Baptist Church protesting Shepard’s funeral with their typical vitriol on full display, we hear Josue explain her desire to show the audience “the real” Matthew Shepard, the person behind all the media hoopla. Matthew’s mother is Judy, a sweet, candid woman who seems perplexed and broken by her son’s loss. She describes young Matthew as a physically awkward child —short, and with braces that he wore until the day he was killed— but also one with a tremendous heart and imagination. She regales Josue with tales of Matthew leaving heartfelt poems in his neighbor’s mailboxes, as well as the stuffed bunny named Oscar that he carried with him everywhere he went. Many of Matt’s friends describe his outgoing personality as “big,” and in some cases “bigger than the town.” Signs of Matthew’s homosexuality began to crop up at around the age of eight (not the least conspicuous of which was his desire to dress up as Dolly Parton for Halloween), but in the deeply conservative microcosm of his hometown, no one in Matthew’s circle would dare to speak a word about it.
What many may not know about Shepard is that he traveled across the globe extensively in his younger years. He moved to Saudi Arabia with his family when he was in 10th grade so that his parents could show him the world outside of Wyoming. He also studied theatre at a boarding school in Switzerland where he met many of his most loyal friends, including Josue. When Shepard was on vacation in Morocco, one of his friends describes a harrowing sexual assault (perpetrated by no less than six men) that left Shepard fundamentally damaged. After Morocco, Shepard was not the same goofy kid with the big smile that all his friends love and remember. He became sullen, withdrawn and afraid of the large crowds he had once welcomed. When he moved to Denver to attend college, Matt’s journal entries became more and more alarming: his friends describe “deep bouts of depression,” and the journal entries that Josue shares with us from that time show a young man teetering on the edge. It took a certain humbling for Shepard to move back to his hometown of Laramie —his parents ultimately persuaded him to do so. It would be the last relocation he ever made.
At this point, the doc takes a deeply chilling turn as it recounts the details of the night Shepard was beaten, tortured and left for dead by two local degenerates named Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. McKinney is described by many in the neighborhood as a “bad seed” from day one, with Henderson playing the role of devoted lackey. They hatched a plan to lure Shepard out to the prairie under the pretense that both men were gay, where they would then rob him and “eliminate the witness,” as the town sheriff puts it. The details that Josue presents of that night are even more disturbing for being so banal: Shepard was drowning his sorrows at a local bar after a meeting of his school’s LGBT group, while McKinney and Henderson apparently paid for their pitchers of beer in an assortment of dimes and nickels (the barkeep was understandably eager for them to leave). When the police discovered Shepard’s near-lifeless body the next day, his face was brutally disfigured and coated in dry blood, except for where it had been washed clean by his tears, an image that remains potent and has been used in poems and songs written about Shepard. Perhaps even more shocking is that, after the media circus that ensued following the their son’s death, Shepard’s parents vocally advocated against the death penalty for both McKinney and Henderson. “The time has come for healing,” says Judy Shepard toward the end of the doc, and although the loss of her son will never truly be forgotten, her commitment to remembering his life in a positive light is admirable and frankly remarkable.
Like Nick Broomfield’s “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” “Josue’s portrait is an unblinking look at how one atrocious crime essentially uprooted the values and concerns of an insular community. In Broomfield’s doc, a litany of grisly murders go unnoticed because a) the killer’s victims are African-American sex workers, and b) nobody in the inner-city milieu that the filmmaker depicts is eager to talk to the police. Josue’s film is less confrontational than Broomfield’s, but it similarly depicts a subsection of society that functions within its own very specific set of rules. Shepard is depicted as having been an outcast his entire life, and one of the most interesting things about this film is that in depicting Matt’s nomadic bouncing from state to state, country to country, we are bearing witness to a young man searching for a sense of identity that may possibly elude him. It was this same impulse to travel and see the world outside Wyoming that, in a cruel, ironic twist, essentially robbed poor Matthew of his innocence and set him on a different course. Also interesting is that most of Matthew’s family —plainspoken, kind folks with traditional moral values—seemed to know he was gay before he ever told them. Matthew’s father recalls when his son came out to him, prefacing the news with “I have something really important to tell you.” After dropping the bombshell, Matthew’s father replied simply with “Okay. So what’s the big, important news you wanted to tell me?” The film is most compelling as a character study, an examination of one man’s quest to be loved and understood. In archival footage glimpsed briefly, Shepard comes across as a boy with an almost unthinkably sunny disposition, offering a smile to anyone who bothered to look his way. The disturbing conclusion we come to as an audience may be that the same things that made Shepard special —his curiosity about people, his willingness to talk to anyone— may have also made him an easy target.
“Matt Shepard Was A Friend Of Mine” is a stirring, sometimes tough-going piece of documentary filmmaking: pure, honest and undiluted by hyperbole. The affection with which Matthew’s friends and family remember him is genuinely lovely. Josue wisely maintains focus on Matthew’s childhood and the events leading up to his death, rather than extending the young man’s circumstances across a broader spectrum of bigotry. I suspect that’s because she expects us to make the connection ourselves: to look at Matthew’s untimely departure and to consider our own capacity for hate and for love. That Matthew was popular growing up and was raised in a normal, loving family only further highlights the intrinsic flaws in the culture that allowed this unthinkable thing to happen. We leave “Matt Shepard Was A Friend Of Mine” with more questions than answers. This, to me, is a sign of good documentary filmmaking. The facts of Matthew’s death are blunt and ugly, but the reverberations of his passing have forced us to look at ourselves, and how we can take measures in exhibiting compassion and empathy so that further crimes may be prevented. I applaud Michele Josue and the makers of this film for honoring their friend, for refusing to exploit his death in the service of audience manipulation and for asking us to look deeply at ourselves. “Matt Shepard Was A Friend Of Mine” is a moving eulogy to a life lost but not forgotten. [B+]