“He was the type of friend I thought I would know my whole life,” director Michelle Josue narrates in the opening minutes of her film Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine. But the chance for lasting friendship with her beloved Matt was robbed from her on the night of October 6, 1998. Viciously beaten and tied to a fence in rural Wyoming, Shepard was discovered eighteen hours later when mistaken for a scarecrow by a passing cyclist. The cyclist recalled the horrific incident: the only patches of skin visible through the dried blood were where streams of tears had cleaned his cheeks. He died three days later, at age twenty-one, from injuries sustained during the attack. The motive? Shepard was openly gay.
Josue carries her audience through a sentimental exploration of Shepard’s life and death. She aptly recognizes the importance of presenting both parts of the Matthew Shepard story. Throughout the film, varying faces flash for interviews: his friends from boarding school abroad, his childhood friends in Wyoming, his guidance counselor, his devoted parents. They all recount stories of their encounters with Shepard, even if only for a brief moment it time. At one point, the myriad of interviews culminates to a point where the audience can no longer distinguish faces or names, which remains as the intention. It represented a small fraction of the macrocosm of friends belonging to Shepard. It was clear that one brief interaction with him created lasting impressions. The interviews of those he left behind are juxtaposed with home videos of Matt, his face illuminated with a smile full of braces. Referring to the expansive cast involved in the documentary, his mother Judy Shepard tearfully declares in the documentary: “He had the love and respect of you and you had the love and respect of him.”
The film made sure to depict a complete and wholesome portrayal of Shepard’s life. It was made clear that he wasn’t perfect or particularly outstanding, given his short life, but he was more than the idolized martyr pasted on the cover of magazines; there was a looming shadow of pain. Shepard struggled with severe depression, which was exacerbated when he became a victim of a gang rape in Morocco. Prior to the attack, he was portrayed as outgoing, open, and a lover of people and theater. Post-rape, he withdrew from the stage and experienced crippling anxiety in large crowds. Shepard and friends had travelled to Morocco while on holiday from Swiss boarding school. He wandered out alone that night to embrace the opportunity to live as himself in a foreign land. At the time, Shepard struggled with his sexuality and his peers’ perceptions of it; few were aware of his homosexuality besides his parents and guidance counselor, Walt Boulden (all who expressed the utmost acceptance). Shepard carried the agony from Morocco and his insecurities throughout the remainder of his brief life. Reading aloud from his faded journal entries, Josue chokes over his words. “I am 20, I am sensitive and caring, 5’3, 101 and a quarter pounds. I’m here because I’m depressed and confused. I hope to be undepressed. I have learned that failure is not always bad and it is necessary…I want my life to be happy.”
After graduating from boarding school overseas, Shepard’s travels brought him to Denver, where he remained miserable for a year as his depression escalated. Despite his grief, he found resilient relationships and many of the friends that appeared on film. In Denver, Shepard’s more blissful moments were counterbalanced with long stretches of despair. At the advice of his parents and Boulden, he returned home to enroll in the University of Wyoming. As he took classes in Laramie, his mother tearfully recalls that “he was in the best shape mentally I think he had been in in three or four years.” Indeed, two weeks prior to his murder, Shepard himself had written: “This is the greatest decision I’ve made...to start school again here in Laramie.” He found friends in the campus LGBT group and began to flourish.
On the aforementioned infamous night, Shepard stopped to grab a few beers on his way home from the campus LGBT meeting. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson noticed Shepard in the bar, assumed he had money, and devised a plan to feign homosexuality to lure him into their car. The world is most familiar with the events that ensued. However, the film emphasizes that his murder is not the most important part of his life. Josue brilliantly achieves this sentiment in her film, rendering Shepard in every dimension to humanize him before he reached revered celebratory status in death. She unveils a window into Shepard’s soul, as well as the people around him that he was able to touch. When speaking about the incident, Boulden somberly muses, “He had an innocence about him and a belief in people. The things that made him an incredible person also made him an easy target.”
The screening, hosted by React to Film AU, was followed by a Google Hangout session with Josue. Josue intentionally depicts her friend in a manner apart from the victimized version of him crafted by the depraved media; he remains more than the martyred face of a movement. “His identity isn’t tied to this act of violence,” she declared in front of the audience of students. Shepard remained a devoted friend, valued the discussion of foreign policy at parties, and cherished his tattered stuffed animal into his young adulthood from his toddler years. While laying in a coma during his three-day struggle for life, his father Dennis drove hours across Wyoming to their home in a frantic and desperate search for the forgotten bunny. If he could give him something familiar, he thought unwaveringly, Matt would emerge from his coma. His father failed to find the bunny in time, and Shepard never awoke. In the film, Dennis clutched the purple, raggedy animal on camera while speaking.
The cruel murder occurred nearly seventeen years ago. While significant strides have been taken towards equality, the winding, difficult path continues towards eradicating malicious sex hatred. Placing the incident in a contemporary perspective, Josue references LGBT folk bullied into suicide, specifically mentioning Leelah Alcorn and Tyler Clementi. Alcorn, assigned the name Joshua at birth, committed suicide after her strictly conservative parents refused to accept her as female, as a daughter. After his homophobic roommate used a webcam to spy on his sexual encounters, Clementi leapt from the George Washington Bridge.
But, what can we, as students, accomplish to transform such a rampant and complex issue? Josue responds, “It might sound trite, but you can never underestimate the power of kindness. I learned that in my friend’s life, not his death.”