Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine (2012)
Director: Michele Josue
Country: USA | Morocco | Switzerland
Editor’s Notes: The following review is apart of our coverage for Inside Out Toronto: LGBT Film Festival which runs from May 22nd to June 1st. For more information on visit http://www.insideout.ca/ and follow Inside Out on Twitter at @InsideOutTO.
As a collective society in the aftermath of a tragedy, we often struggle to differentiate the victim and the labels media puts on them from the actual person behind them. Michele Josue’s brilliant, deeply personal and emotive documentary Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is a conscious attempt to get a close look at the life and times of Matt who was the victim of a homophobic hate crime in 1998 in Wyoming which spurned a nationwide outrage and movement. Documented and made by his childhood friend, Josue makes a highly effective case on the notion of documentary interviews being far more effective when they are simply being told to someone they personally know.
Michele Josue’s brilliant, deeply personal and emotive documentary Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is a conscious attempt to get a close look at the life and times of Matt who was the victim of a homophobic hate crime in 1998…
From the very outset, Josue proclaims she wants the audience to see not the Matt that was born in the fire of the outrage after his death but the Matt they always knew. What follows is an incredible exploration on the shared memories of a group of people on Matt, starting from his family and eventually spreading out to his friends and acquaintances he made in the world. The entire first half hour reintroduces the world as the Matt his family and friends knew – a perspective nobody in the media bothered enough to properly understand. One of the greatest successes of this documentary stems from the fact that it feels very universal – as if the Matt they knew before the incident was someone all of us knew at some point of our own lives as a friend, a colleague, a classmate who loved being around people, had his own dreams, ambitions and uncertainties about his future. This deconstruction of a figure we only knew through media portrayal seen from the eyes of his loved ones’ is remarkably effective in building a solid foundation for the entire film and in validating its’ honesty where almost no on-screen emotion in the interviews rings hollow.
Proceeding primarily in the form of recollections of Matt’s loved ones while reading old letters and diary entries written by him, the documenter Josue engages directly in many of these conversations, drawing a sense of deep personal belonging and connection with many of these memories that she shared with Matt. Maintaining a solid, unwavering focus on Matt as seen through others’ memories, the documentary beautifully charts his trajectory from childhood to teenage, as the questions of orientation and sexual identity he was dealing with get more complicated after a traumatic experience in Morocco. That event ushers a soul-searching phase for Matt and the consequent grief and regret on the faces of his loved ones’ recollecting those memories thinking how they could have helped him never ring hollow.
This half hour is incredibly important because it resets the whole tragedy that we all know is eventually to follow to a deeply personal context. So, when the tragedy does occur, for the audience it is also happening to a person we are deeply invested in. Josue’s use of a traditional narration technique in a documentary works to a brilliant effect as the emotional impact hits the audiences’ much deeper when the fateful event finally occurs.
While this has been explored by many documentaries before, the tone that Josue had set in the preceding minutes helps enrich a lot of these words with a rare degree of honesty, even for the distant viewer.
Having established a personal context to the entire documentary, it doesn’t pull any punches as it looks at the sharp divide in modern America with the outrage and media attention that followed the event that led to Matt’s death but views it from the context of the family. While this has been explored by many documentaries before, the tone that Josue had set in the preceding minutes helps enrich a lot of these words with a rare degree of honesty, even for the distant viewer. At an emotive highpoint where Matt’s parents have to give a speech after his funeral service, they stand as two lone figures entrenched in pain surrounded by a circle of media people.
From there, the film doesn’t look back as it builds on digs briefly into different topics. In one of its standout scenes, Josue and one of Matt’s friends read diary entries from Matt on wanting to be accepted by the world and contrast it immediately with hateful letters that the hospital where Matt was being treated received.
In another equally outstanding exchange with a priest who did funeral service for Matt, the film explores the subjectivity of “good” and “bad” when he is asked “Do you think his killers had any good in them?” and his attempts to humanize different sides of them reasonably unsettles Josue. But the very fact she included it in the documentary unedited shows an understanding that morality can get quite skewed when we start judging people as pure good or evil based on a single action. Thematically, this neatly ties in with the eventual outcome of the case where Matt’s parents ensured one of Matt’s killers got life sentence instead of death penalty. As Judy Shepard, Matt’s mother, who stands as one of the brave and affectionate figures throughout the documentary says, “The healing has to begin somewhere”.
A deeply emotional and brilliantly made documentary that takes an unwaveringly personal look at the figure whose tragic death transformed him into a national martyr of America’s sharp cultural divide and eventually led to an important movement, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine succeeds on every level in portraying in Josue’s own words “the Matt that we knew”.