This is part of a series of first person posts in which we provide a forum for filmmakers and other artists to discuss their process, their influences and/or their experiences showing their work. In this edition, Michele Josue talks about "Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine," the incredibly affecting documentary she directed about Matthew Shepard, the young gay man brutally murdered in 1998.
Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was brutally murdered in one of the most horrific anti-gay hate crimes in U.S. history, is an icon to the LGBT community. To many, Matthew Shepard is even considered a martyr, a public symbol undeniably important not because of how he lived, but how he died. But Matt, as we called him, was also my friend. And over fifteen years ago, I made a promise to myself that when I was ready, I would share with the world who Matt really was –a friend, a son, a brother-- in the only way I knew how, through film.
Creating “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine,” an intimate portrait of the young man behind the tragic headlines, has been an arduous journey that has spanned many years. As first-time filmmakers, we’ve faced many struggles, both professional and personal, in making a truly independent film that is so close to our hearts. In those tough times, we have been sustained by our firm conviction that our film will make an impact. But since we began to exhibit it this past fall, we’ve been surprised and humbled by how deeply each community has made an impact on us. Though it’s always hard, sharing Matt’s story, alongside friends, countless supporters, and most of all, Judy and Dennis Shepard, has easily been the biggest honor of my entire life.
Judy and Dennis Shepard are very special people. After losing their eldest son, Judy has become a leading advocate for LGBT rights. Determined to prevent others from suffering Matt’s fate, Judy and Dennis turned their grief into action and established The Matthew Shepard Foundation to carry on his legacy. They have been so supportive of us since we started our work on the film four years ago, and this past November, they came with us to the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) where they saw the film for the first time. Our time at IDFA was wonderful, and the audiences in Amsterdam embraced the film and us. There are many people who figure prominently into our IDFA experience, but one in particular is Mallory Martin. A programmer at the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF), she discovered “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” at IDFA and helped bring us to CIFF this past March.
Our time in Cleveland was an unforgettable experience that we are profoundly grateful for. Thankfully, our first screening at the festival was packed, but I was still nervous. Patrick Shepherd, the wonderful Associate Director of the festival, called me and my producer (and husband) Liam McNiff to the front of the room to introduce “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine.” I thanked the festival and what already felt like an enthusiastic crowd for coming out and supporting our film. Finally, I motioned to the very back of the room and introduced Judy and Dennis Shepard.
The audience let out a collective gasp. Much to my amazement, the packed audience immediately rose to their feet and gave the Shepards a long and well-deserved standing ovation. I could see how touched the Shepards were and how the crowd was brimming with admiration. With tears in my eyes, I laughingly exclaimed, “Usually I cry AFTER the film, not before!” The room was filled with so much love.
Sitting amongst this compassionate audience, I watched the film through Judy and Dennis’ eyes. What I saw was heartbreaking, as it always is, but also so hopeful. In that packed theater in downtown Cleveland, I understood how Matt lives on--through our film and the audiences that learn about his story; through his friends; through the tireless work his parents do in his name; and through the undeniable progress that has occurred in the years since his death. I thought about how incredibly proud Matt would be. As the film faded to black, the audience rose to its feet, and I was once again so moved and grateful by the outpouring of love and support in that room.
After the film, the Shepards spoke about their work, the state of LGBT equality today, and how all of us have changed because of Matt’s death. The audience asked many thoughtful questions and also gave us insight into local issues their community was facing and how our film put all of that into context for them.
The next evening, at the festival’s Closing Awards Ceremony, we were shocked and humbled to learn that our film--a film truly borne from our blood, sweat and tears; a film we sometimes feared might never see the light of day--had won the festival’s top prizes. We were honored to win the Greg Gund Standing Up competition, which highlights “films with a conscience,” and the Roxanne T. Mueller Audience Choice Award for Best Film.
At the ceremony, I passed the microphone to Dennis Shepard who spoke to the huge crowd that had gathered. “I’d rather be in Wyoming with my son,” he said after a long pause. “But since I can’t do that, I’d rather be here…so other families can be at home with their children.” It was a bittersweet, emotional win for all of us.
Watch the trailer below, and look for "Matt Shepard" at upcoming community events in Cleveland (May 6 at the Capitol Theatre) and Minneapolis (May 13 at The Women's Club), as well as during both the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and Inside Out in Toronto (and surely many after that).