Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine (Virgil Films, NR)

It focuses on the personal more than the political.

Matt Shepard 500

If you want to make yourself feel old, consider this: a child born in the year Matthew Shepard was murdered would be a senior in high school this year. Shepard’s murder in Wyoming on Oct. 6, 1998, drew attention to the dangers faced by gay people in America, and his story has been immortalized in numerous creative works, including the play The Laramie Project and the television movie The Matthew Shepard Story. Along the way, Shepard became a symbol for hate crime victims of in America, to the point where one of his friends and classmates, Michele Josue, felt that the story of the person Matthew Shepard was becoming lost.

To correct this imbalance, Josue made the documentary Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, which enjoyed a successful run on the festival circuit and is now available on DVD and VOD. It focuses on the personal more than the political, featuring interviews with Shepard’s family and friends and lots of home movies (Shepard seems to have loved being in front of the camera) and providing biographical background about a young man who became best known for the way he died.

The picture Josue creates is one of a young man who knew from an early age that he wasn’t like everyone else (dressing up like Dolly Parton on Halloween, and sometimes not on Halloween, is cited by a neighbor as an example of Matt being Matt). As a boy, he was charming and outgoing, but as a teenager became more confused and withdrawn as his sexuality became more of an issue.

Independent of his sexuality, Shepard’s life was different from that of most American teenagers—for high school, he went to a boarding school in Switzerland (his father was working in Saudi Arabia, and there were no American-style high schools available in the country at that time) and traveled internationally with his friends. Not all his experiences abroad were good, however—in Morocco he showed up at a classmate’s door crying and missing some of his clothing, having been robbed and raped by a group of men in an alley.

Shepard never entirely recovered from the attack—his mother said she noticed immediate changes even in his physical posture, while  Josue describes him as “broken” after this experience—but he continued with his life, enrolling in several colleges and taking some time off to live in Denver (friends describe the latter as a particularly disordered time in his life). He came out to his parents, who took the news calmly (his mother said she had known for years), and to some friends as well. Eventually, Shepard moved to Laramie, Wyoming, to enroll in the University of Wyoming, where he was studying political science at the time of his death.

Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is an intensely personal film, revealing the unique life story of a young man who became a symbol of violence against gay people. There are no extras on the DVD release. More information about the film is available from its official website. | Sarah Boslaugh

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