For most people, the name Matthew Shepard is synonymous with a brutal murder. The death of the 21-year-old college student — who was found bludgeoned, comatose and mortally wounded in Laramie, Wyoming, on Oct. 6, 1998, and passed away six days later — inspired a slew of films, TV shows, plays and songs, as well as legislation that expanded the legal definition of a hate crime to include sexual orientation.
Shepard, a handsome, skinny, short young man, was robbed, beaten and left tied to a fence by two other men who pretended to be gay and offered him a ride home from a bar. Both were convicted of felony murder and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. The case was closed, and the media moved on to other things.
But the pain of those who knew Matthew — his family, friends and teachers — would never be abated. The main thing writer-director Michele Jouse, who was close to Shepard, wanted to do with her intimate documentary Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine was to give a voice to those who are still mourning him and allow them to share their stories. Through them, we would get to know the person behind the tragedy, to learn who he was other than just the victim of a horrible, senseless crime.
Through interviews, photos and lots of home videos (Shepard was a ham for the camera), the movie paints a portrait of a genial, outgoing boy blessed with great charm and humor who grew into a sensitive and confused teenager grappling with his sexuality. His mother recalls how she suspected Shepard was gay from the time he was a boy, when he liked to dress up as Dolly Parton for Halloween (“He didn’t always wait until Halloween to put on the costume,” she recalls, smiling). His guidance counselor recounts the day Shepard came out to him — he hadn’t yet told anyone else — and expressed his fears of being rejected by his family (instead, his parents were barely fazed when he told them).
When he was in the 10th grade, Shepard moved to Saudi Arabia with his parents and younger brother (his father worked for an oil company) and enrolled in a boarding school in Switzerland, which marked his first time living away from home. There, he met Jouse, who shares her impressions of Shepard at the time (he wanted to be an actor, performed in the school’s theater productions and said he “knew” he would be famous someday). Shepard also got to travel the world as a high schooler: We see footage of him in Japan, and we hear a terrible story from one of his classmates, who had accompanied him on a school field trip to Morocco, about the night he showed up shirtless and barefoot at her hotel room, crying and claiming he had been robbed and raped by six men in an alleyway.
Shepard was never quite the same after that incident, which began a long struggle with depression. Still, he rebounded enough to enroll at the University of Wyoming, where he was majoring in political science at the time of his death. Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine doesn’t shy away from exploring his murder: There are brief but troubling glimpses of autopsy photos, as well as moments of stunning honesty, such as an interview with a priest who explains why it was important to forgive his killers (they were spared the death sentence due in part to efforts by Shepard’s parents to make sure they would never be eligible for parole). All these years later, those who knew Shepard still carry a great pain with them — many people break down in front of the camera — but they have also learned to live with that tumult. As his father says at the end of the film, “The way [Matthew] changed the world is not the way I wanted him to change it. But it happened.”
Writer-director: Michele Jouse.
A Run Rabbit Run Media release. Running time: 89 minutes. Adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Shores.