Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine: the documentary opens at Elmwood Rialto today

It would be churlish indeed to say something negative about the deeply personal Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, a new documentary opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, March 20. Directed by Michele Josue, a close school friend of Shepard’s, it’s a criticism-proof film that makes up in emotional punch what it lacks in cinematic chops.

Matthew Shepard was, of course, a young Wyomingite murdered one 1998 night by a pair of pub crawlers. Josue takes a traditional chronological, biographical approach to telling Shepard’s story – not surprising, as she’s a neophyte filmmaker with no professional training.

The diminutive Shepard spent much of his short life on the move. After a stable childhood in Laramie, Matthew moved first to Saudi Arabia (where his father worked for an oil company), then to a swanky boarding school in Lugano, Switzerland. He spent time in Italy, Japan and Morocco, went to North Carolina for college, and lived briefly in Denver before returning to the ironically named Equality State.

The irony, of course, was that Matt was gay, and Wyoming has never been considered a particularly welcoming place for members of the GLBT community. Nonetheless, the Shepard family felt his home turf was safer for him than elsewhere, and Matt concurred.

Shepard’s coming out process had been an extended one — first, sharing the news with a trusted adult (a professor at University of Wyoming who was also gay); then, opening up to school friends; and finally, relating the facts to parents Judy and Dennis. Convinced they would disapprove, Matt was pleasantly surprised when neither parent evinced much shock or surprise at his ‘revelation’: in fact, Judy had suspected as much since Matt was 8, when he was Dolly Parton for Halloween.

On the night of Oct. 6, 1998 22-year old Matt, now settling back into Laramie’s small-town ambiance, went to a bar for a drink. He met Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, left the bar with them, and was found severely beaten and tied to a fence the following day. He died in hospital five days later.

Josue’s friendship with Matt began in high school, and their relationship provided access to almost all the important people in Matt’s life, including parents, teachers, and friends, many of whom are seen here in interview footage. About the only person absent is Matt’s brother Logan, whose absence is unexplained but understandable: not everyone wants to share their grief on camera.

Shepard’s murder kickstarted a new gay civil-rights movement, and, while it may be a stretch to claim his death eased the way towards marriage equality, it certainly made many Americans reassess their attitudes towards gay men and lesbians. If a fresh-faced kid next door like Matthew could be gay – and be murdered for it – surely the same could be true of anyone.

If Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine has a hero, it’s mother Judy, whose calm demeanor and thoughtful analysis anchor the film. Determined that her son’s death wouldn’t be in vain, she’s spent the past few years advocating on behalf of the LGBT community, with an emphasis on youth work. She seems like quite a woman.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...