Documentary Tearjerker: Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine

A Documentary

  • Directed by Michele Josue

I have a rule. If a film makes me cry, it deserves a high grade. If it makes me cry a lot, it gets an A. This documentary about the homophobic murder of a young gay man had me all but audibly sobbing.

Do you remember Matthew Shepard? In 1998, he was savagely beaten, tortured, tied imageto a fence, and left to die outside of Laramie, Wyoming. Not quite 22 at the time and extremely short for his age, he was emotionally fragile and had only recently come out to his parents (they had already figured it out). His death was exceptionally shocking and brutal.

Director Michele Josue was, as the title suggests, a friend of his. But she was smart enough not to make the movie about their relationship. For the most part, she interviews other friends, counselors, teachers,  and mostly his parents, who become the stars of the film.

Judy and Dennis Shepard come off as loving, practical, open-minded parents, and Christian in a way that doesn’t fit Bay Area stereotypes of white people in Wyoming. Photos, home movies, and Josue’s interviews take us through the joys of raising Matt, concerns about his emotional state in young adulthood (he was apparently gang-raped in Morocco), the horrifying days when his life was in the balance, and a media-heavy funeral marred by protests from the  Westboro Baptist Church (talk about the evil type of Christians). The Shepards also asked the prosecutor not to try for the death penalty, and founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation to fight homophobia in the schools.

On one level, Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine is terrifying and deeply sad. Coming out of the press screening, I wasn’t the only person with a stunned look on my face. On the other hand, the movie is inspiring, because you meet so many decent, loving human beings.

This one is a must-see.

I saw Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine at a press screening previous to its world premiere at the 2013 Mill Valley Film Festival. It opens Friday at the Elmwood.