Thursday, February 5, 2015

In MATT SHEPARD IS A FRIEND OF MINE Michele Josue reopens/helps heal an old wound

Can it really be more than 16 years since the murder in Wyoming of an elfin-like kid named Matthew Shepard became national and then worldwide news? More than any other victim of a gay hate crime that I can ever recall, young Shepard became the face, body, heart and soul of gay victim-hood. He stood for it all. "Matthew always wanted to be famous," notes the boy's guidance counselor (himself a gay man), with sadness and irony, during the course of this new documentary. One can't help but wonder, after seeing MATT SHEPARD IS A FRIEND OF MINE -- written and directed by Michele Josue, who was indeed a good friend of the murdered boy -- what Shepard himself would make of the kind of martyr he has now become.

One of the many strengths of the documentary is that Ms Josue, shown at right, sees to it that Shepard becomes much more than mere martyr by filling in many of the blanks a lot of us did not know, unless we followed the case in enormous detail -- and even then I believe that the filmmaker has brought new facts, speculations and ideas to the table.

Josue manages this by bringing to that table a landfall of interviews, mostly with Shepard's family, to whom he was extremely close, and with teachers, counselors and his many friends. Everybody liked this fellow, it seems. So, too, might have his murderers, had they only gotten to know him a little longer and a little better. When they were sober.

For the first half of this 89-minute movie, we hear all about the boy-growing-into-young-man with accompanying photographs, most of them stills. We learn how his family moved to Saudi Arabia due to dad's work and how, because of lack of schools for the English speaking, Matthew was placed in a boarding school in Switzerland. This is where he met many of the friends shown and interviewed in the movie.

These kids (that's Matthew, second from right) took trips around Europe as part of their education, and they persuaded the school's administration to allow their trip to Morocco -- a trip that changed Matthew's life in ways you'll learn when you see the film.

Around the halfway point, we get to the murder itself, bits of which are told and shown, and then the remainder of the film tries to come to terms with what happened and why and what might be done to prevent more of the same. We see those idiotic demonstrators waving their signs telling us that God Hates Fags, and Ms Josue interviews the priest who spoke at length to one of Shepard's murderers, pre-sentencing. That priest's advice to the filmmaker, who is having a very hard time coming to terms with all this, proves illuminating.

Shepard's parents and brother seem a particularly kind and likable family, and when, post-"event," they become involved in the Foundation that now bears their son's name, we realize that this is where the film has been heading: into the territory of redemption. Fortunately, Josue doesn't over-do this angle. She simply offers it up as one of the alternatives involved in moving on.

Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine is a very personal documentary that becomes, over its full length, much more than that. It gives a young man who was mostly seen as victim the chance to live as a more full-bodied character, someone with whom we all might easily have become friends. The movie, from Run Rabbit Run Media opens at New York's AMC Empire 25 on Friday, February 6, then expands to Los Angeles' Laemmle Noho 7 on the following Friday, February 13. 

Update: as of November 3, 2015, the film is available via DVD 
There's no excuse to miss out: 
This documentary is worth seeing.

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