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Filmmaker’s Forum: On The Bittersweet, Emotional Journey Of ‘Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine’

Filmmaker's Forum: On The Bittersweet, Emotional Journey Of 'Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine'

This is part of a series of first person posts in which we provide a forum for filmmakers and other artists to discuss their process, their influences and/or their experiences showing their work. In this edition, Michele Josue talks about “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine,” the incredibly affecting documentary she directed about Matthew Shepard, the young gay man brutally murdered in 1998.

Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was brutally murdered
in one of the most horrific anti-gay hate crimes in U.S. history, is an icon to
the LGBT community. To many, Matthew Shepard is even considered a martyr, a
public symbol undeniably important not because of how he lived, but how he
died. But Matt, as we called him, was also my friend. And over fifteen years
ago, I made a promise to myself that when I was ready, I would share with the
world who Matt really was –a friend, a son, a brother– in the only way I knew
how, through film.

Creating “Matt
Shepard is a Friend of Mine
,” an intimate portrait of the young man behind
the tragic headlines, has been an arduous journey that has spanned many years.
As first-time filmmakers, we’ve faced many struggles, both professional and
personal, in making a truly independent film that is so close to our hearts. In those tough times, we have been sustained by our firm
conviction that our film will make an impact. But since we began to exhibit it
this past fall, we’ve been surprised and humbled by how deeply each community
has made an impact on us.
Though it’s always hard, sharing Matt’s story,
alongside friends, countless supporters, and most of all, Judy and Dennis
Shepard, has easily been the biggest honor of my entire life.

Judy and Dennis Shepard are very special people. After
losing their eldest son, Judy has become a leading advocate for LGBT rights.
Determined to prevent others from suffering Matt’s fate, Judy and Dennis turned
their grief into action and established The Matthew Shepard Foundation
to carry on his legacy.  They have been
so supportive of us since we started our work on the film four years ago, and
this past November, they came with us to the International Documentary Film
Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) where they saw the film for the first time. Our
time at IDFA was wonderful, and the audiences in Amsterdam embraced the film
and us.  There are many people who figure
prominently into our IDFA experience, but one in particular is Mallory Martin.
A programmer at the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF), she
discovered “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” at IDFA and helped bring us to
CIFF this past March.

Our time in Cleveland was an unforgettable experience that we
are profoundly grateful for. Thankfully, our first screening at the festival
was packed, but I was still nervous. Patrick Shepherd, the wonderful Associate
Director of the festival, called me and my producer (and husband) Liam McNiff to
the front of the room to introduce “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine.” I
thanked the festival and what already felt like an enthusiastic crowd for
coming out and supporting our film. Finally, I motioned to the very back of the
room and introduced Judy and Dennis Shepard.

The audience let out a collective
gasp. Much to my amazement, the packed audience immediately rose to their feet
and gave the Shepards a long and well-deserved standing ovation. I could see
how touched the Shepards were and how the crowd was brimming with admiration.
With tears in my eyes, I laughingly exclaimed, “Usually I cry AFTER the film,
not before!” The room was filled with so much love.

Sitting amongst this
compassionate audience, I watched the film through Judy and Dennis’ eyes. What
I saw was heartbreaking, as it always is, but also so hopeful. In that packed
theater in downtown Cleveland, I understood how Matt lives on–through our film
and the audiences that learn about his story; through his friends; through the
tireless work his parents do in his name; and through the undeniable progress
that has occurred in the years since his death. I thought about how incredibly
proud Matt would be. As the film faded to black, the audience rose to its feet,
and I was once again so moved and grateful by the outpouring of love and
support in that room.

After the film, the Shepards
spoke about their work, the state of LGBT equality today, and how all of us
have changed because of Matt’s death. The audience asked many thoughtful
questions and also gave us insight into local issues their community was facing
and how our film put all of that into context for them.

The next evening, at the
festival’s Closing Awards Ceremony, we were shocked and humbled to learn that
our film–a film truly borne from our blood, sweat and tears; a film we sometimes
feared might never see the light of day–had won the festival’s top prizes. We
were honored to win the Greg Gund Standing Up competition, which highlights
“films with a conscience,” and the Roxanne T. Mueller Audience Choice Award for
Best Film.

At the ceremony, I passed the
microphone to Dennis Shepard who spoke to the huge crowd that had
gathered.  “I’d rather be in Wyoming with
my son,” he said after a long pause. “But since I can’t do that, I’d rather be
here…so other families can be at home with their children.” It was a
bittersweet, emotional win for all of us.

Watch the trailer below, and look for “Matt Shepard” at upcoming community events in Cleveland (May 6 at the Capitol Theatre) and Minneapolis (May 13 at The Women’s Club), as well as during both the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and Inside Out in Toronto (and surely many after that).

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