Matthew Shepard has become emblematic of the battles for human rights and against hate crimes. His friends also would like you to know that Shepard laughed with his whole body and was a political junkie addicted to CNN.
Los Angeles filmmaker Michele Josue’s documentary “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine,” playing Sunday afternoon at Sacramento’s Crest Theatre, emphasizes the caring, fun nature of Shepard, the 21-year-old gay college student who died in October 1998 after being severely beaten outside Laramie, Wyo. The film features home-video footage of Shepard as a youngster and remembrances from family and friends, including Josue, who attended a Swiss boarding school alongside Shepard.
Josue, 34, said her primary motivation in making the film came from “seeing the media strip away (Shepard’s) humanity, and him becoming this symbol,” she said. “I don’t want to take away from his legacy, which stands for compassion trumping hatred and cruelty. … But it was always heartbreaking to see those things that made him special and human fade away.”
Josue met Shepard in 1993 at the American School in Switzerland, which Shepard attended after his parents moved to Saudi Arabia for his father’s oil-company job. There were no American high schools in Saudi Arabia.
Shepard was a popular student, Josue said. “He was larger than life, so curious about the world, and loved people so much,” she said.
Shepard’s horrifying death – two Wyoming men are serving life sentences for the slaying, during which Shepard was pistol-whipped and left tied to a fence – sparked outrage and greater awareness of hate crimes against gay people. Shepard’s death previously inspired “The Laramie Project,” an acclaimed theater piece turned HBO film that was based on interviews with Laramie residents.
In death, Shepard has attained an almost martyrlike status that obscures his very human complications, Josue said. “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine” shows a complex young man whose short life included an intense battle with depression.
“He always fought it actively and tried to find his happiness and his peace,” Josue said.
Financed partly through a Kickstarter campaign, “Friend of Mine” was made for “less than $200,000,” Josue said. That budget allowed Josue to travel to Switzerland and to spend significant time in Laramie and in Shepard’s hometown, Casper, Wyo.
She interviews Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, who started the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. A sought-after public speaker, Judy Shepard was instrumental in the passage of 2009’s Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Byrd, an African American man, was killed in a racially motivated 1998 attack in Texas.
Josue also interviews other boarding-school classmates of Shepard’s, including Shepard’s close friend Zeina Barkawi, 35, who now lives in Reno and whose parents and sister live in the Sacramento region.
Barkawi last saw Shepard a few months before his death, when the pair traveled from Reno to her parents’ new, and not yet occupied nor fully furnished, Roseville home.
“We were tanning in the backyard, and I think we rented movies,” Barkawi said of her visit with Shepard.
In the film, Barkawi and Josue go through a box of Shepard’s writings, including ad-hoc journals and letters written to friends but never mailed.
“When Matt passed away, Mrs. Shepard – Judy, but I still call her Mrs. Shepard – told me she had a box of his things, and that she would keep it for whenever I was ready to go through it,” Barkawi said.
She had avoided that box for years, Barkawi said, just as she avoided talking about Shepard. The filmmaking process was healing, she said.
The film’s release coincides with the 15th anniversary of Shepard’s death. But Josue said she made the film when she did mostly because she was not ready before.
“I was a sophomore in film school in Boston when Matt passed away,” she said. “I was only 19, and the way he died and how horrendous and devastating it was really impacted me and the rest of his friends (and will) for the rest of our lives. ... As a filmmaker, I felt this tremendous obligation to honor him (through her art). I just had to wait until I was emotionally mature enough to deal with the subject matter and have enough perspective.”
The 15-year mark arrives amid a contradictory human rights climate in the United States. Gay marriage is now legal in 14 states. But bullying, especially the Internet variety, seems more prevalent than ever.
“Matt’s wasn’t the first or the last hate crime,” Barkawi said. “The reality is there are a lot of Matts still out there, so (the film) is reaching out to whomever we can.”