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Entries in Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine [2014] (1)

Friday
Feb132015

Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine (2014)

Demolishing Fences

Sometimes, heroes don't get to participate in their own greatness. An outgoing 21-year-old Wyoming kid named Matthew Shepard dreamt of being famous; of helping people around the world; of stepping beyond the small, awkward body into which was born to become someone important. He got his wish posthumously, following a savage, fatal beating at the hands of two bigots his own age.

Overnight, Shepard became an international symbol for the horrors of intolerance, prompting conversations from classrooms to conference rooms to the Oval Office. The public came to know Shepard mostly through iconography (the blue-checked shirt from his widely circulated media-profile photo, the cross-hatched wooden fence on which he'd been bound), but in many ways his real identity remained trapped in a heart that had long since stopped beating.

Shepard's long-time friend, Michele Josue, made a documentary about him called Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine. Through letters, interviews, and a look at events outside the media spotlight, she reveals a life of struggle, support, and incredible love. It's an uneven but undeniably powerful film that should be seen by anyone who has a problem with lifestyles, languages, or beliefs that are different from their own. That's not to say this is a propaganda piece--rather a reminder that there's a story (often relatable, sometimes uncomfortable) behind every cause, victim, and villain absorbed by our popular consciousness.

Frankly, the first half of the film is tedious—but that’s the point.* Shepard made friends easily, loved to perform, and was hungry to learn about the world outside his small town. Parents Judy and Dennis did their best to create a normal life for their sons, Matthew and Logan. In the early nineties, Dennis' employer, an oil company, relocated the family to Saudi Arabia, and paid for Matthew to attend boarding school in Switzerland. He met Josue there, and found a surrogate family of affluent students who accepted him despite his middle-class upbringing.

In this first forty minutes, we meet Shepard's parents, guidance counselor, and friends from high school and college—all of whom share fond recollections of a smart, big-hearted, but profoundly troubled boy. Their stories run together a bit, forming an often repetitive portrait of all-American averageness. Shepard wasn't born a marching martyr or cartoon queen; he was a closeted gay kid living in a time and place that compounded the already difficult journeys of being a kid and being gay. Shepard didn't have school clubs or social media outlets for support in his teens, and role models in film and TV were still years away. Had he not died the way he did, by all accounts he would have grown into a seemingly unremarkable white guy who studied business as a tool for positively impacting the globe.

Sadly, there's a hitch to this story, which marks a downturn in Shepard's life and an upswing in Josue's documentary. Following a horrific robbery and sexual attack during his senior trip to Morocco, Shepard returned to the states a changed person. That event shook and shamed him, and foreshadowed his run-in with two murderous punks in a bar a few years later.

Shepard was kidnapped, robbed, and tied to a fence before being pummeled and pistol-whipped into a coma. He died a little while later, having suffered irrevocable brain damage and unspeakable physical injury. Josue doesn’t dwell on the ghoulish details, juxtaposing just the right amount of the killers’ barbarism against the bright future they’d cut short.

She leads us out of the darkness with two powerful and unexpected scenes that cement her film as required viewing:

First, we see Dennis Shepard plea for leniency in the case of Aaron McKinney, who faced the death penalty for killing his son. It’s at once a gut-wrenching and graceful condemnation of hatred. Second, Josue interviews a priest named Roger Schmit, who adds some gray tones to an issue many might see as black-and-white. He picks up on Josue’s rage at Shepard’s killers and, having spent time with McKinney, gently cautions against ascribing one-dimensional characterizations and motivations to people based on their actions or appearance. It’s a complex and refreshing exchange whose emotional intelligence is missing in many of our national conversations.

It also highlights the shortcoming in Josue’s documentary. I admire the filmmaker’s unique “in” regarding Matthew Shepard’s story, but it’s not clear that she was as central a figure in his life as a synopsis of the movie might suggest. Like Michael Moore, Josue makes herself part of the story—showing up on camera with her subjects and inadvertently making a number of scenes about her. Between Josue’s too-on-the-nose narration and unnecessary reaction shots of her listening to people’s stories, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine at times feels like a reality TV show interrupting a serious movie.

That said, this angle works to stunning effect in the scene with Schmit. Until that point, I was sufficiently moved by the subjects' talking about Matthew--and didn't need the intrusion of Josue's empathic face to reinforce the emotions she'd wanted to convey. But in calling Josue’s understandably reactionary emotions to task, Schmit underscores our collective need for reason in debates of such profound importance.

That minor quibble aside, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine pays touching tribute to a young man who simply wanted to share himself with the world. Towards the end, we see anti-gay protesters outside Shepard's memorial service. Couldn't they see the irony in spewing venom about a young man who'd essentially been killed on a tree by an angry mob who wasn't ready to hear his message of unconditional love? Probably not, and I doubt they'll see Josue's film. That's fine, because the rest of us have Matthew Shepard--not just as an icon now, but as a friend.

Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine opens today at Chicago's AMC River East. For more information on the film, check out mattshepardisafriendofmine.com.

*Intentional or otherwise, it doesn't matter.