The powerful, heart-wrenching documentary Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine has amassed numerous accolades at film festivals worldwide. The film tells the story of Matthew Shepard, the gay young man who was tortured and murdered in one of the most notorious hate crimes in U.S. history. Directed by Michele Josue, a close friend of Shepards’, the movie revisits the shocking case with never-before-seen photos, rare video footage, and new revelations about Shepard’s all-too-brief life.
Dennis Paul: Why did you feel Matt’s story needed to be told?
Michele Josue: As Matt’s friend and as a filmmaker, I have felt an obligation for quite some time to share his story in the sensitive, honest, human way it deserved to be told. I felt it was my duty to help reclaim a small part of him and allow the world to see Matt as not just a victim, but as a human being with flaws and joys and struggles just like all of us.
As the years passed, I watched a younger generation come of age that was oblivious to the tragedy of Matt’s story. I felt an increasing urgency to tell his story. I wanted the world to reconnect with Matt in a more human way and for young people to learn his story for the very first time.
Your friendship with Matt clearly inspired you to make this film. On some level, that’s obviously an opportunity. On other levels, I’m sure it made the filmmaking process incredibly difficult for you personally. How hard was it for you?
How supportive were the Shepards and Matt’s other close friends during filming? What challenges arose, if any, in the filmmaking process related to their involvement?
The Shepards and Matt’s friends couldn’t have been more supportive of the film. The Shepards trusted me implicitly to tell Matt’s story, and I’m so grateful for that. Getting to know them as friends has probably been the best thing about this whole journey. They are such special and inspiring people.
What was the biggest challenge for you, in terms of bringing his story to life on film?
I think for me the biggest challenge was trying to balance my professional duties as a director with the emotions of a personal friend revisiting some very painful memories. I had a lot of trouble with that. I think all of us in the film who were close to Matt had similar personal struggles.
In the 4 years it took to make the film, there were moments when I seriously contemplated giving up. But even in those tough times, the firm conviction that our film would make an impact and that Matt’s story was one that needed to be told sustained me.
How would you ideally like to see people respond to your film? Do you see social impact resulting from the audience already?
As a friend of Matt’s, I want people to get to know Matt as a human being. I want the world to learn and connect to Matt beyond seeing him as just an icon or a victim murdered simply because he was gay. To those of us who knew him, Matt was so much more than that. So I think now, 16 years after his attack, there’s a lot of value in learning about Matt in this new, more human way. There’s also an entire generation of young people who don’t know about Matthew Shepard. I think they can watch the film and relate to his triumphs and struggles and feel their own story being reflected in his. Hopefully, Matt’s story can help them feel less alone.
Though Matt’s death was unbelievably devastating, I still find hope in his story and his inspiring legacy, as carried out by his brave parents Judy and Dennis Shepard. I hope the film inspires us all to think about the impact we can have on the lives of others and challenges us to live an authentic life of love, compassion, and courage.