Matthew Shepard's brutal murder fifteen years ago in Laramie, Wyoming, has become a major symbol of the struggle for civil rights for the LGBTQ community around the globe. Now, thanks to the diligent work of Shepard friend and filmmaker Michele Josue, the world gets to see so much more of his story in Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, debuting in Denver this Friday, October 11.
A friend of Shepard from his boarding-school days in Switzerland, Josue goes beyond the conventional depiction of her classmate and confidant, filling in the gaps with in-depth interviews and never-before-seen photographs and home movies from those who knew Matt best. The result is a deeply personal film about who Matt Shepard really was, and the legacy created by his death.
Westword caught up with Josue, who will be at the screening Friday night, to talk about how and why the documentary came together.
Westword: The film is a collage of interviews from so many people who knew Matt throughout all stages of his life -- how did you assemble these interviews?
Michele Josue: This is a story that is so personal to me and that I've lived with for many years -- the film had been building inside me for a very long time. So when we finally decided that it was the right time to do it, I did my due diligence and did my research and just looked at people I felt could illustrate Matt from all of the different points in his life -- from his childhood to his death.
I did all of the research that I could -- I watched The Laramie Project and subsequent interviews, and certain people kept coming up and calling to me. For instance, Father Roger Schmidt and Detective Dave O'Malley -- I was fascinated by his story. Romaine Patterson, who I did not know personally, but I had heard a lot about her -- I thought she would be a great representative of Matt's life in Denver. It was just about finding the right people who collectively could weave as complex, honest and complete a portrait of Matt as possible.
It was a story that touched everyone I talked to. I spent hours with each and every person I interviewed. It wasn't like I did short, twenty-minute interviews -- I think the shortest interview I did was at least an hour. Each person had so much to say about Matt and his story and how it touched them. Each person was so genuine and authentic and amazing. I'm really glad for all of the people who came forward and wanted to participate in this project.
Why did you decide to make this film now?
I know I wasn't ready until now. We actually started in 2009, talking and doing research, but it wasn't until a year later that we started filming. When this happened fifteen years ago, it was the first time I had lost a close friend. I had family members that I had lost -- but this was something different. The way that he died was just so unbelievably devastating to me -- and obviously, to the whole world -- that it was something that stayed with me and marked me deeply.
What was very heartbreaking afterwards was seeing how the media and the news started to strip Matt's humanity away. It was obviously very important that Matt became this symbol that represented the struggles of the LGBT community, but it was just disheartening to see that what made him so special and his essence was just disappearing.
So I made a promise to myself that when I was ready, emotionally and artistically, I would do what I could to share with the world who he was and what he was really like as a human being. I think that there's so much value in that, and by showing that Matt was an actual person, I think people will only have a deeper connection with his story. His story will be more powerful.
It is glaringly obvious how dated the news footage is in the film -- and how dated the ideas were around what had happened to Matt. There was so much of an emphasis on him being gay, not just the victim of a horrific crime.
Dennis (Shepard, Matt's father) has said few times in speeches, "Matt wasn't my 'gay' son; he was my son." That is just so simple, but it says so much.
The work Dennis and Judy Shepard have done since Matt's death is pretty incredible. After seeing the film, I felt like Matt would have been proud that his parents became the advocates they are today.
It is a deeply inspiring thing to see. It is almost as if Matt's life, through his death, took a different direction through the work that they do in his name. In the interview with Judy, I sort of make an offhand statement to her, like, you know, you could have just hid forever. But as you see in the film she says, no. Absolutely not.
They are tireless in their activism. Even after the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed a few years ago, they are still out there traveling, endlessly, just getting their message out of erasing hate. A lot has happened in fifteen years, especially when we're talking about LGBTQ visibility and civil rights -- what do you think it is about Matt's story that still rings true or is relevant today?
I get that question a lot, and it is certainly a question I grappled with in the film. I think it is so hard when you are so personally connected to it, to see why, exactly. It's like, this is so surreal; why is my friend all over the news? Why is something so painful and so private all over the world?
I think the world was ready to hear the story, on a certain level. There were hate crimes that happened before Matt Shepard and hate crimes that happened after Matt Shepard, and we don't always hear about them. But for whatever reason, the world was ready to hear it -- and then, I think, it was just Matt himself.
There was something about him that translated to people -- either people saw something in Matt that reminded them of themselves and their story, or they could relate to his family, for instance. And another thing, I think in seeing Matt and how young and fragile he looked -- especially in those photos that the media was putting out there -- I think that contrasted with how horrific the crime was. I think that contrast really struck people.
Honestly, it is a mystery. But it is almost not as important as the fact that, for whatever reason, Matt's story resonates with people deeply, still. His story sheds light on the other stories that have happened and don't get reported. I think it is ultimately a good thing.
Your film shows what an accessible, likable person he was. I think it is easy -- once you can see the whole picture -- to see that being gay was part of who he was, but it wasn't what defined Matt every moment of the day.
Thank you. When people ask me [why I told Matt's story} I kind of want to ask it back -- like, what was it? What did you connect with?
I personally connected with his story because when it happened, I took my then-four-year-old sister to the steps of the Capitol for a vigil for Matt. Trying to explain to a child why someone would kill another person because of who they are -- I mean, how can you explain to a child something that isn't logical?
You can't. It's totally illogical. It's something we try to answer in the film, but it is just an impossible question.
Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine screens at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, October 11, at the Seawell Ballroom in the Denver Performing Arts Complex; doors open at 6:30 p.m. and tickets are $20. The screening includes a performance by singer-songwriter Randi Driscoll and will be followed by a Q&A with Josue. To purchase tickets, visit the Matthew Shepard Foundation website.