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Director Michelle Josue and Judy and Dennis Shepard talk about ‘Matt Shepard Is A Friend of Mine’, and the pain of losing their friend and son 15 years on

Director Michelle Josue and Judy and Dennis Shepard talk about ‘Matt Shepard Is A Friend of Mine’, and the pain of losing their friend and son 15 years on

Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine

It was early afternoon on Friday, May 23rd 2014. I walked into TIFF Bell Lightbox, knots in my stomach, my eyes still welling with tears. “Just take a deep breath,” I kept telling myself. “You’ll be fine.” Up the escalator I rode, around the corner, and into the lavish Luma lounge. I approached the table, and as soon as I saw Dennis and Judy Shepard, I began to cry. No amount of professionalism or attempt at stoicism could mask the impact of their son’s story, told beautifully by his childhood friend Michele Josue, in Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine. The moving documentary – holding strong with 100% on Rotten Tomatoes – is currently playing at Toronto’s Carlton Cinema through until March 5th.

By this point, many are familiar with the tragic death of 21-year old Matthew Shepard. A Political Science student at the University of Wyoming, Matt was brutally beaten by two young men purely because he was homosexual, and left for dead in a field just outside of Laramie, Wyoming. He never recovered from the resulting coma, and his passing sparked a media frenzy that forever altered the landscape of LGBT rights and activism. The details of his death – though sometimes sensationalized and misrepresented – were at the foreground of his story, and wound up greatly overshadowing Matt himself.

“When Matt was attacked and died over 15 years ago,” said director Michele Josue, “I was a film student at Emerson College in Boston,[…] and I was really interested in helping other people tell their stories.

“So I watched this happen,” Josue continued, “and it was obviously very devastating. But what I found equally devastating was the fact that [Matt’s] sense of self, who he was as a human being, was starting to slip away. [H]e became just this headline known for the horrific way in which he died. So I felt this obligation as a friend and as a filmmaker to share with the world who he was as a real person who had family and friends who loved and supported him.”

Matt Shepard

“[I]t was very very hard in every way,” Josue added of the filmmaking process involved for this project. “Even in ways that I didn’t expect. [M]aking an independent film is kind of like running a small business. But then adding the emotional weight of Matt’s death and how he died, that just made it all the more difficult. [D]elving back into those painful memories, it was all quite hard.

“[W]hat was healing about the process,” she continued, “was that we were all able to finally use this painful thing that had happened and try to make something positive out of it, and try to create positive change in the world. So it’s a sort of bittersweet process.”

“We trusted Michele to make the film that was about her Matt,” added Judy Shepard, Matt’s mother. “To not sugar-coat it and to be true to who Matt was to her. That was really what it was all about.

“It was hard for us to watch,” Judy continued. “[W]e’ve talked about it so much that it’s hard to come up with a question that’s not been asked before. And Michele somehow found a way to do that for both of us so that anything that’s new, you think about it in a different way. I don’t know that [the filmmaking process] was hard, but it was emotionally draining.”

“It’s when you see the overall film that you realize what a beautiful job she did,” added Dennis Shepard, Matt’s father. “The hard part for me was seeing Matt and hearing him. It made me realize how much I still miss him. And that smile, that wit. The caustic things he said about my intelligence compared to his (laughs). It’s a lonely feeling every time you watch the film that you just want to give him a hug, and you can’t. And it hurts.”

The loss of a child is an incomparable one, let alone in such a heinous, violent manner. The pain ebbs and flows, lingering alongside a myriad of complicated emotions. When I asked Judy about the notion of closure, she responded simply; “I think we’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that closure is a concept that doesn’t really exist.

“It’s never the end,” she continued, “it never closes. It gets different. But it never really goes away, the pain and the hurt. But as long as you have your memories of good times and even challenging times, they’re still with you. So they’re not gone or forgotten. Talking about the film brings back all kinds of memories that sometimes you don’t think about until somebody prompts you. I found that to be true when we wrote our book [“The Meaning of Matthew”], too. It’s like we finally have permission now to remember things that made us laugh, and things that made us cry. And that’s all good.”

Because of their living situation – Dennis and Judy were still living and working in Saudi Arabia, while their younger son, Logan, was at boarding school in Minnesota – they never felt invaded by the press. “We didn’t have a front yard for them to camp out on,” added Judy. “We were allowed to grieve. But we also understood that we needed to take advantage of an opportunity to make things better for other members of the community, and Matt’s friends and peers.”

While they were allowed to grieve, they found themselves mostly grieving apart from one another, due to their geographical separation. After the initial media frenzy, Judy stayed in Wyoming and began travelling the country in an attempt to start the discussion about LGBT rights.

Matt Shepard and friends

For Josue, the loss at the time hit harder, shattering a fairly innocent worldview, and making the grieving process more confusing and complex. “[Matt’s] death really was the first time I saw how hateful and horrible and violent the world could be,” Josue added. “I had a hard time dealing with it. I think a lot of his close friends did just because we were so young, and we lacked that maturity, and we were all very naïve and innocent. We had just graduated from the American school in Switzerland, which was such an idyllic place. It was like living in a bubble where everyone was different, and everyone was from all over the world, and we really celebrated those differences in each other. So [Matt’s death] was such a true shock to the system, and it took me a long time to be able to come to terms with it, and just to talk about it. So I would avoid talking about it because then I would cry. I felt that that was very embarrassing, so I just shut that part down.”

“We had the advantage, perhaps, over Michelle,” added Judy, “in that we had the opportunity to talk about Matt and talk about Matt and talk about Matt, and we didn’t have to avoid situations where we couldn’t, because we actually had to do it. I think that talking about it makes it easier to accept. And I don’t think any of Matt’s friends had that opportunity. They kept it all locked up.”

“We really did,” continued Josue, “and we were all so spread out across the world. The last time we were all together, and talking about Matt, was at his funeral. So we never had that opportunity to kind of reminisce and talk about it. Like [Judy] said, talking does so much in terms of healing, and I think it would have been best if we had sort of talked to even a professional, or gotten Matt that type of help [when he was struggling with his sexuality], and in retrospect I wish I had done that.”

“Things have changed,” Judy continued. “Maybe the fact that we can talk about [LGBT] issues in public now, the public forum. All over the world, the fact that you can get married in so many countries now is startling. 15 years ago I don’t think that was even on our radar. People are now aware of the issues, and they understand people telling their stories, and they understand now that it’s not just the people you see on TV. […]It’s your next-door neighbour. A good, stand up guy, or woman, who’s just trying to make it. Gay, straight, whatever. We’re all just human beings.”

But with this immense change comes the realization that their son had to die to instigate such a media firestorm. I couldn’t help but wonder if they harboured any kind of resentment for such a heavy price. I was not, however, prepared for their stoic and touching response.

Matt Shepard

“How could we be resentful?” asked Dennis. “Look at all the Matt’s and Mathilda’s out there who have a chance to live a normal life instead of hiding. Half their life is still spent pretending to be someone, and the other half who they really are. Now they can focus energy on being good citizens, and on their careers, and their families, on everything. What’s not to be proud of?”

“The only resentment exists in the fact that we had to lose Matt for that to happen,” added Judy. “It should never have been in existence to start with. That fear and that prejudice.

“What I resented about the media,” Judy continued, “was that, at the time, I didn’t feel like they had a sense of responsibility to get it right. So many things were in error in the beginning, and it just kept getting added to everybody’s story. Nobody ever tried to find out the truth. For example, the story that Matt was tied to the fence like the crucifixion wasn’t true. And it’s been talked about and talked about and talked about, but nobody wants to let that go. I kind of resent that.

“The important thing for us is that the truth be told,” she continued, “and that isn’t the truth. It makes it something that it wasn’t. It makes it more iconic, maybe, perhaps even sensational. The fact that the media made it a sensational story sort of served our purpose in the way that it gave us a chance to tell our story, about parents accepting their children, which is really why we got into this to start with. We didn’t think 15 years later we’d still be doing it.

“There’s the Yin and the Yang with the Press,” she added. “But it wasn’t long before we realized that, if they’re going to use us to sell the story, we can use them to tell our story. And to talk about our foundation, the work that we want to do, and the changes we think should be made, and how we think we can do it.”

One of the more poignant moments in the film is between Josue and a priest by the name of Father Roger Schmit. He spent time with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson while they were on trial for Matt’s murder, and speaks very wisely and stoically about the need for understanding that we are all human beings, and that even these boys are not the monsters we wish them to be. He adds, most movingly, that there is a necessity to hold onto the anger felt by Matt’s loved ones at the circumstances surrounding his death. That there’s a healthiness to that emotion, and a necessity for it.

“I hope I don’t ever not feel angry,” Josue adds in an apt double negative. “That’s something that I’ve learned, especially in that conversation; that it’s important to honour that anger, and embrace it as something that is a part of me now, to use that as fuel to help ensure that this never happens again. I think it’s important to be in touch with that emotion.

“That’s what I love about the end of the film,” she continues, “and you see these portraits of all the people who were important figures in Matt’s life. It reminds me that life goes on, and we’ve all grown up and experienced joy. But this is just a part of us, now.”

“There’s good anger and bad anger,” Dennis adds. “You can use it to your detriment, or use it to benefit. I have the anger. I won’t ever give it up. But, you use that to try and force these parents to recognize that their kids are their kids. That it’s not a choice. No one wants to be discriminated against, beaten, vandalized. That’s crazy. [I]f they had accepted their kids, we would still have Matt. We wouldn’t be going through this turmoil right now on equal rights around the world.”

“There’s an anger at the situation,” adds Judy, “that the situation was even allowed to happen. But the environment in the US at that time – well, worldwide at that time – was that somehow being gay was “less than”, made you less than a human being. It was that attitude that gave those boys the thought that they could do that to Matt without consequence. That’s what makes me angry. That’s what drives me.”

“When we have total acceptance,” adds Dennis, “then we’ll let go of [our anger]. Not tolerance. Acceptance.”