What does it mean to grieve? Is closure really possible after a loved is taken from the world prematurely? Can one ever really heal? These are just some of the deeply profound questions addressed in the heartbreaking, yet somehow inspiring documentary Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine. But this stirring film does not stop there. It also broaches such massive and mostly subjective topics as hate and forgiveness. What do these things mean to different people, and how we all react to them differently?
Divided into three parts, this profoundly personal film examines the life and death of Matthew Shepard, as well as the aftermath of his brutal murder in 1998. Told through personal letters, journals, and candid home videos, the tragic story of Matthew Shepard is lovingly told by those who knew him best – his astonishingly strong parents and a diverse set of friends, including Michele Josue, a high school friend and the film’s director.
The film’s opening segment introduces viewers to a young Matt Shepard, an energetic, yet introspective boy struggling to find himself and acceptance from others. Like many adolescents wrestling with their sexuality, Matt would find himself in constant search for both of these things for the rest of his unfortunately abbreviated life. He had a loving family and caring friends, but was that enough?
The middle segment of the film covers the part of Shepard’s life the general public knows most about – his shockingly gruesome and unfathomable murder at the age of 21. Beaten, tortured, and left to die, Matt was found tied to a wooden fence out in the middle of nowhere near Laramie, Wyoming. He died six days later in the hospital without ever regaining consciousness.
His murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were apprehended, confessed, and were convicted to life in prison. Whether this grisly crime was the result of a robbery gone wrong (as the defendants claimed) or a hate crime motivated by Shepard’s sexuality was hotly debated during the trial and in the national media.
The final part of the documentary is the most heart wrenching as the film’s subjects find themselves still dealing with the loss and grief almost two decades later. Matt’s parents were able to channel their pain into advocacy for hate crime legislation. Director Michele Josue chose to make this film as way to not only tell the story behind the story of her friend, but also as a way to better understand how and why she was still feeling this pain. Whether she got those answers or not, only she can answer, but just opening the dialogue, and in such a intensely personal way, the film accomplishes something extremely admirable.
I remember the murder of Matthew Shepard. Though it seemed like a world away and not something that touched me directly, I was socially aware enough, even at 13, that it made an impact on me. But I never knew more than the surface of the story – the widespread mourning, the justifiable outrage, and the need for change. And that change has come, slowly at least, partly due to the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law in 2009. But is it enough? LGBT rights are still up for debate all across America. How, in 2015, is that even possible? It will never be enough until there is no longer a debate, just equality.
Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine will screen in New Orleans at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center starting Friday, February 27. The film screens at 7:30 p.m. nightly.
Also, Jason Marsden, Executive Director of The Matthew Shepard Foundation (who is featured in the film), will be in attendance at Zeitgeist on Friday & Saturday night for a Q & A with the audience after the film.
So come out to the Zeitgeist and take advantage of this unique film-going experience and all the Zeitgeist Arts Center has to offer. And by doing so, help support one the premier alternative arts center in the South. You can visit the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center’s website here.
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