‘Matt Shepard’ puts a face on a tragedy – and a triumph

“Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine” (2014 production, 2015 release). Interview Footage: Michele Josue, Judy Shepard, Dennis Shepard, Tim Galles, Walt Boulden, Zeina Barkawi, Cynthia Whisenant, Nikki Pearson, Julie Anderson, Rich Mack, Kate Chill, Romaine Patterson, Jason Marsden, Jim Osborne, Matt Galloway, Dave O’Malley, Rob Debree, Reggie Fluty, Rulon Stacy, Father Roger Schmit. Archive Footage: Matt Shepard, Logan Shepard, Aaron McKinney, Russell Henderson, Ellen DeGeneres, President Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama. Director: Michele Josue. Screenplay: Michele Josue. Movie web site. Television web site. Trailer.

It’s easy to forget how those who are the inspiration for very public events are also individuals, flesh and blood people with their own personalities, traits and sensibilities. We often look past those qualities, not realizing how such traits often play an integral part in helping to bring their accomplishments into being. Under such circumstances, the only ones who get to see the private sides of these people are those who know them intimately. But now there’s a new film that attempts to correct that oversight at least for one public figure, a highly personal profile that provides the basis of the heartfelt documentary, “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine.”

In October 1998, the death of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard came to dominate national headlines, not so much because it happened but, rather, because of how it happened. The first-year University of Wyoming student was brutally beaten and left to die on the prairie outside the town of Laramie – because he was gay. His attackers, local residents Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, claimed that they pretended to be gay to win over Shepard’s confidence as a pretext to robbing him. However, as became apparent during the assailants’ trial, their victim’s sexuality clearly played a pivotal role in the incident. Shepard’s death thus spurred a push for passage of national hate crimes legislation that would include sexual orientation as one of the bill’s qualifying criteria, a goal realized in 2009 with the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The shy, small-framed Shepard probably never expected to play such an important part in this emotionally charged debate, one that stirred strongly held feelings on both sides of the issue. Yet this unlikely, unwitting participant became involved in a highly public way. And, in so doing, he moved a nation.

But just who was Matthew Shepard? Most people probably know him from the news stories. However, those who were part of his life prior to his assault knew a very different person. They were the family and friends of Matt Shepard, and it’s their relationships with him that provide the focus of this film.

Like many of those who knew Matt, director Michele Josue was still grieving the loss of her longtime friend 15 years after his death. So, to cope with her pain, she decided to make a film about the person she knew, partly to help her heal and partly to put a face with the name that came to symbolize a movement.

Through a mix of interviews and archive footage, the film paints a personal portrait of its subject. Viewers meet Matt’s parents, Judy and Dennis, as well as friends from throughout his life. Some particularly poignant clips feature conversations with one of Matt’s high school teachers, Cynthia Whisenant, his classmate and traveling companion, Kate Chill, and friend and former Casper Star-Tribune reporter, Jason Marsden. But perhaps the most enlightening interview is with Matt’s high school guidance counselor, Walt Boulden, the first person to whom he came out. Boulden would come to be a good, trusted friend, one who played an integral role in helping to generate press coverage about Matt’s assault and the plight of hate crimes against gays.

Over the course of the film, audiences come to see Matt for who he was as a person – a compassionate soul who loved people of all types. Viewers learn of his interests in acting and politics, as well as his passion for writing in his journals, excerpts of which are read throughout. The picture also features footage from the many diverse places in which he lived, including Wyoming, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Denver, as well as photos and videos from the places he visited, such as Morocco. He clearly packed a lot of living into a very short life, and he touched many people along the way.

Sadly, it would be impossible to tell Matt’s story credibly without including a recounting of the end of his life, and the film does so in a thoughtful, forthright manner. The documentary’s treatment of Matt’s final days effectively conveys the heartbreak of his circumstances while impartially reciting the facts of that gruesome ordeal, as told by Sheriff Dave O’Malley, Undersheriff Rob Debree, Deputy Reggie Fluty and Hospital Administrator Rulon Stacy. Sensitive viewers should be advised, however, that the film includes several graphic photos of Matt after his attack, a troubling aspect of the story that is handled frankly yet tactfully (but that some may nevertheless find upsetting).

Once word of this incident made its way into the press, news of the crime – and what was behind it – swept the nation. Outrage over the attack prompted protests across the country and garnered the support of celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and politicians like President Bill Clinton. The attack raised awareness about gay bashing and hate crimes, sparking discussion of these topics to degrees never seen before. And from it came the aforementioned legislation, as well as the launching of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a community outreach organization established by Matt’s parents.

Despite the positive benefits to come out of this tragedy, Matt’s story nonetheless represents the kind of manifestation that makes some question the existence and value of the conscious creation process, the means by which our reality materializes through our thoughts, beliefs and intents. Indeed, one might quite legitimately ask, why would any of us seek to bring circumstances like this into being?

Answering that question isn’t always easy, especially under seemingly unpardonable conditions like these. However, sometimes the results we ultimately seek arise through the unlikeliest of creations. As Walt Boulden candidly observes in one segment, Matt had told him he always wanted to change the world, and that he truly did – even if he did so in a way that none of the rest of us might have chosen.

At the core of this story is something very ugly, something that most of us would rather not face – hate. Yet it’s something that, for better or worse, we’ve incorporated as part of our existence. So, in light of that, then, the key question that we must address is, how do we respond to it? Do we react in kind? Or do we pursue a different path, one that takes us in a different direction and helps to dispel its power?

This is where the power of beliefs comes into play. By envisioning and employing different intents, one can only hope that they help to bring about the demise of what gave rise to these circumstances in the first place. Attacking hate with hate only brings more hate, but, by bombarding it with love and forgiveness, hate doesn’t stand a chance.

Those who knew Matt would contend that such thinking would truly honor him, for it would be in line with his worldview, one in which he freely shared his love for people. And several examples of this are seen in the film. For instance, in a re-created reading of a statement Matt’s father gave at Aaron McKinney’s trial, Dennis Shepard makes an impassioned case to the court to spare the life of his son’s attacker, contending that condemning him to death would not bring Matt back. He instead asked for a more compassionate sentence of life imprisonment. In doing so, though, he also wished McKinney a long life, one that would give him ample opportunity to contemplate what he had done.

In a similar vein, viewers also get to see clips from an interview with Father Roger Schmit, a Catholic priest who has visited McKinney since his incarceration. During this segment, Father Schmit discusses how to react to events like those perpetrated by Matt’s assailant. He freely acknowledges that it’s difficult to let go of the hurt and anger that naturally arises in connection with such incidents. However, he also suggests looking at the bigger picture, specifically at what good has come from this event, as well as the opportunity it has provided the guilty party to consider his crimes and find the more commendable aspects of himself, qualities of which he was probably unaware at the time of his wrongdoing.

Again, these are attitudes that mirror Matt’s sentiments about people, and honoring them honors Matt. But this is something that transcends the circumstances here; it’s an outlook and approach we can all draw upon, not just in our reactions to Matthew Shepard’s story but in response to the incidents that crop up in our own everyday lives. If we can recognize that, then it’s obvious Matt Shepard’s impact was considerable, touching many more people than just those who knew him.

“Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine” is a compelling, engaging documentary that lends a personal touch to a public event. It evokes genuine, heartfelt emotions that run the gamut, but it does so without veering into manipulative or overly sentimental territory. It maintains a sense of objectivity while still conveying an undeniable point of view, a rather tricky tightrope to walk when dealing with subject matter like this. The film is also nicely paced and well edited, successfully avoiding the trap of self-indulgence that can come with a filmmaker telling an intimate, emotionally charged story.

The film has been playing in limited theatrical runs since early this year, with additional screenings yet to come. It’s also currently airing on the Logo cable television network, as well as the Logo TV web site. For further viewing on the subject, audiences might also wish to consider the made-for-TV movie “The Matthew Shepard Story” (2002) and the cable film “The Laramie Project” (2002), both of which are available on DVD.

When we get to know about someone who has been highly influential in some regard, it not only draws us closer to the individual, but it also often helps to strengthen our feelings about what they helped accomplish, especially if said attainments have had widespread impact. By coming to know Matt Shepard the person, we can better understand and appreciate Matthew Shepard the public figure, for what he helped realize may likely not have happened were it not for the role the person played in its unfolding. And, based on what we see in this film, it’s a pretty safe bet that, had we been able to get to know him, many of us also likely would have been proud to say that Matt is indeed a friend of mine.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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