The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine

A few years ago, there was a documentary called Dear Zachary. It wasn't the most technically well-made doc ever, but it contained a raw power that was undeniable. Director Kurt Kuenne invested the film with so much of his own emotion as he told the tale of two people in his life, a father and his little boy, who were both murdered. The impact was so great that the film's occasional rough edges didn't matter. Michele Josue achieves something very similar with her documentary Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine. What she lacks in filmmaking finesse is made up for in passion.

Josue was a longtime friend of Shepard, the college student who was famously tied to a fence and beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998 after revealing his homosexuality to two men in a bar. The case made national news, creating a powerful awareness of homophobia and the very real horror of hate crimes. Still reeling from her friend's brutal murder, she spends 89 minutes telling his story. Included are tidbits from his childhood, the details of how he came out to his parents, and a devastating attack/rape he endured while traveling in Morocco. About halfway through, the film segues into detail about the fatal night Shepard was killed and the trial that followed.

Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine features interviews with its subject's parents, in addition to over a dozen close personal friends, all of whom offer their perspectives on who he was. The real value of the movie is in showing that he was more than a symbol of hate crimes. Just as his killers looked at him and only saw “gay,” the public has tended to look at him as a representation of the horrors of homophobia and prejudice. Josue and her interviewees paint the larger picture, allowing us to gain some sense of Matt Shepard as a complete person. And the process of doing this makes the senselessness of his death that much more palpable.

What emerges is the story of a young man who wanted to achieve great things in life, but who also struggled with serious depression following the attack in Morocco. He felt isolated at times, and he yearned to feel acceptance. He was funny, intelligent, and ambitious. Shepard's friends help us feel as though we, too, knew Matt. When the movie shifts to the aftermath of his murder, Josue begins seeking answers. In perhaps the most powerful moment, she interviews the priest who counseled one of the murderers in jail. He offers some amazingly astute insight, while also reminding the filmmaker (and, by extension, us) that, just as Matt was more than just a victim, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson are more than just killers. It's a truth Josue visibly has trouble accepting, yet also one that really hits on the big-picture tragedy here: irrational hatred hurts everyone.

Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine isn't always well-organized, and Josue includes perhaps a few too many artfully-composed shots of herself grieving at the location of the murder. Still, the film is infused with love and feeling, from her and from everyone who takes the time to talk about this young man whose life was snuffed out too soon and too violently. It's a touching, deeply affecting look at the ongoing impact of loss.

( 1/2 out of four)

Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine is unrated, but contains adult language and subject matter, including brief glimpses of crime scene photos. The running time is 1 hour and 29 minutes.

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