Documentary Remembers Matthew Shepard as a Friend, Not a Martyr

Shepard
An aging pot of flowers adorned with a cross hangs October 15 from the picket fence where gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was tied, beaten and left, just outside of Laramie, Wyoming. Reuters

There are several documentaries that could have been made in 2015 about Matthew Shepard, the openly gay University of Wyoming student who became a national symbol for hate-crime awareness after his violent 1998 murder.

There might have been the true crime documentary, tracing a grisly minute-by-minute account of the night Shepard met his killers in a Laramie, Wyoming, bar, where they allegedly pretended to be gay to attract the 21-year-old's interest. Or imagine the policy documentary, exploring the hate-crime legislation that's been signed into law in Shepard's honor. We might have gotten the big-budget Hollywood take, with celebrity talking heads who never knew Shepard speaking to his legacy on camera. 

Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, the new documentary directed by Michele Josue, which premiered Monday night on Logo TV, is none of these films. It doesn't try to be. Josue, who shared a close teenage friendship with Shepard, instead peels away some of the decades of martyrdom. Her movie depicts Shepard as a complicated, brave, flawed person few had the opportunity to know. An extensive stash of home video footage gives the film an almost uncomfortably intimate air. Interview subjects—Shepard's parents, friends, a guidance counselor who says he was the first person Shepard came out to—tear up on camera and refer to him as "Matt" rather than "Matthew."

Judy and Dennis Shepard, the slain 21-year-old's parents, spoke to Newsweek about the film, which they praised as one of few tributes to their son that they consider truthful.

"The truth is the court transcripts, [2000 play] The Laramie Project, Judy's book and this documentary," says Dennis Shepard. "Everything else is pretty much bogus." Judy concurs: "There's a lot of stuff out there that people say about Matt like they knew him, and they didn't."

The spark for the film came when Josue, who studied filmmaking after Shepard's death, approached the Shepards about making a movie about their son. After seeing the media misrepresent Shepard, "I made a promise to myself that when I was emotionally and artistically ready, I would share, with the world, who Matt really was," Josue writes in a director's statement. Judy and Dennis were expecting this. They trusted her implicitly.

"We all felt like the Matt we knew was somehow getting lost in this Matthew Shepard iconic symbol for the gay movement," Judy tells Newsweek, "which was cool, because things were changing, and maybe Matt's story was helping that, but somehow the real Matt got lost. I was worried that young people would think that Matt was some perfect human being with no issues and no flaws, and there is no such thing as that. I didn't want Matt to be unrelatable.... Matt was a human being, and no one should ever treat another human being this way."

While the film contains wrenching detail about Shepard's final moments—he was brutally beaten and left tied to a fence in remote Wyoming—several of its most moving moments spotlight less publicized aspects of his life. In one scene, a high school friend recounts the night she comforted Shepard when he was robbed and raped during a trip to Morocco. Shepard entered treatment for depression shortly after that incident, though the trauma seems to have haunted the then-teenager up until his murder three years later. "Matt had issues with depression and all kinds of things that kids go through," Judy says.

The film's final scenes explore Shepard's parents' decision to broker an eleventh-hour deal to spare their son's killer, Aaron McKinney, from the death penalty. "Mr. McKinney," Dennis is shown declaring, "I grant you life in the memory of one who never lived." Though rarely maudlin, the director's techniques seem designed to bring both audience and interview subjects to tears.

The Shepards are grateful for the portrayal, though they find watching the film to be a mixed blessing.

"It's nice to see Matt again, to see him so alive and laughing and smiling," Dennis says. "But then it's really tough when the film ends because you know he's gone again."