Today marks 18 years since the violent, homophobic murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998.
Two years ago we spoke to one of his closest friends, Michele Josue, who made a documentary about his life and death.
Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine has the blessing of his parents and has won critical acclaim for its warts and all depiction of a modern day icon.
Speaking in 2014 to GT, Michele revealed why this labour of love is just as relevant now as it was in the aftermath of Matthew’s tragic death.
Matt and I met at an international boarding school in Switzerland in 1993 when we were 13-years-old. His dad worked in Saudi Arabia, so Matt had to go to high school elsewhere, and my mom’s company paid a large amount of the tuition for me to study abroad. He was a little older than me and a freshman. We both auditioned for a school play and they paired us up to read together because we were both really small.
He was really, really funny and from that moment on, we became close. Matt came out when he was 18 and it was pretty much a non-issue with his friends and family. After he graduated, we still stayed in touch, even though it was harder back then because there was no Facebook or text messages. He even came to stay with my family and I during the summer.
I was in Boston in my second year at film school when Matthew was murdered. My older sister called me and told me turn on the news immediately; she wanted to verify where my friend Matt Shepard was living because something terrible had happened to someone by the same name in Wyoming.
I watched the news and was so shocked… I tried to wrap my brain around it because I was so confused. It was surreal at first because we didn’t know what was happening, and all his friends were working backwards trying to figure out what was going on. It was the most bizarre, crazy thing and so, so painful. You never think something like this could happen to someone you are close to.
Over the next few years, it was a surprise how much his murder affected people who didn’t know him, not only in the US but around the world. There’d been many hate crimes before and many since, but there was something about Matt’s murder that struck a chord.
Eventually I moved to Los Angeles to work in the film industry and to work on other people’s projects, but I was ready to break and do something of my own. And for years, Matt’s story was building inside me. Then I watched his mother Judy on The Ellen DeGeneres Show talking about her courageous book about Matt, and that was a moment of clarity for me. I felt like I was not doing enough. I had to do something for Matt and all those other Matt Shepard’s out there.
When Matt died, I watched the media take over and build his death into an event. He became this icon of the LGBT community, but in the process he was being stripped away. I had this obligation to tell the world what he was like as a human being and share his story in an honest way. The only way to do that was to make my film.
I approached Judy first to make sure I had her blessing. My husband and I took her to lunch and we talked at length about my idea, then I started getting in touch with mutual friends of Matt’s and mine to see if they’d be willing to talk about him.
The film was funded by my personal savings and Kickstarter, a crowd sourcing internet platform. It’s where artists put up creative projects and anyone can donate to help it get funded. People around the world shared our goal and more than 1,000 gave anything from $1 to $5,000 dollars.
Matt’s friends were so amazing, but it wasn’t easy reliving something many of us hadn’t properly dealt with. It’s easy to talk about Matt and how funny and wonderful he was, but it’s hard to relive how he died.
As part of the filming, I went to the hospital room where Matt died and visited the field where he was assaulted which was very difficult. But the hardest part was going through a box of Matt’s letters and belongings. Whenever he moved, he’d bring with him this beat-up old box, filled with poems, postcards and pictures and unsent letters to his family and friends. Going through it was painful because I got little glimpses into his world and the things he battled with.
The most important thing for my film is to expose Matt’s humanity. He was a normal person; he was complex and flawed and someone who experienced joys and struggles. I had to paint a portrait of a complicated but real person.
I try to examine in the film what it was about his murder that affected people. I think it was because Matt looked like someone you could relate to, he had similar experiences to others, he was so fragile, he looked like the boy next door and there was a horrific violence to his murder.
A lot has changed in the 15 years since Matt’s death. His story was the first to prompt people’s attention to the violence happening to the LGBT community. His death shifted the cultural conversation and made straight people more aware of LGBT inequalities. It’s bittersweet to think this horrible thing that happened to Matt has in the long run been a good thing for the LGBT movement. And the work his parents have been doing in his name is the work Matt would have done had he lived.
I hope to take this film to more film festivals and find a distribution deal so it’s widely available. I’d like to get it into schools because young people need to learn about Matt’s story. It’s a profoundly important film about an icon and it’s a cautionary tale. What happened to my friend Matt Shepard could happen to anyone.
For more information on the film visit mattshepardisafriendofmine.com
After Matt’s death, his parents Judy and Dennis began the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which has also helped change laws. Judy tells GT why she believes Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine is such an important film.
“We absolutely trusted Michele because we knew how much Matt loved and respected her, and she felt the same way about him. It was something she needed to do, so we were all for it. We knew by taking it on she would do the right thing.
We felt she would not try and exploit or dramatise his life, and stick with what we all felt about Matt. There had been a couple of TV movies in the past, one better than the other, but they were still not really the truth because every story takes on the spirit of whoever is making it, and for whatever reason they’re doing it.
Michele approached us three or four years ago about making it. She felt much the way that we did, that Matt was becoming a Matthew Shepard that we didn’t know. She wanted his friends to have the opportunity to talk about who he was as a real person, not this idealised version of what he was becoming.
The image of Matt was becoming one of an angelic child who never made a mistake and never had any problems in his world. Everybody needs to know he had issues and he was working through them. He had struggled with depression and his own insecurities, much as many young people do today. The truth is more important than glossing over anything.
It’s quite remarkable knowing that Matt hasn’t been forgotten by his friends. Early on, they all had the opportunity to tell or sell their stories, but none of them did. They kept it to themselves until Michele spoke to them. Michele kept us in touch with what was going on during the filming, but we were conscious not to interfere with the final product because it was hers, not ours.
Watching the final film was really hard. A lot of the videos his friends had of him we hadn’t seen before. It brought back such a rush of sadness and made his life seem more fresh. The pain never goes away but it changes over time. It was a ying and a yang: it was great to see them but it was still really hard. But the film was beautifully made and Michele did a magnificent job.
The film makes what happened to Matt – and Matt himself – more relatable. It brings home how senseless this whole thing is and encourages people to live a better life.
Since Matt’s death, LGBT rights have seen a 180 degree turn. When he was still with us, I thought I’d never see gay marriage in my lifetime or his, but it’s turned out to be the opposite. Now we’ve taken on federal hate crime legislation, gay people can get married in certain states and ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ has been removed from the military. We still have social issues, but every poll shows more than 50% of people are accepting of total equality.
I don’t know when my work will be done. It will be great to wake up one morning and find the whole gay issue isn’t an issue any more. But we will be here as long as people want us to be. It would be great for us not to be necessary.”
Words John Marrs