Introducing filmmaker Michele Josue. Her feature film Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, released on VOD and DVD this week, presents the life and legacy of her friend Matt Shepard. Michele’s film shows the world who the real Matt Shepard was – a son, a brother, a caring friend. In this #filmmakerfriday piece, Michele tells us why she was ready to tell Matt’s story seventeen years after his death and her experience filming this emotional compelling documentary.
Q1. When did you decide it was right time to show the life and legacy of Matt Shepard through film?
This film has been something that has been burning inside of me for quite some time. When Matt died, I was a film student studying in Boston. His death and the way he died devastated me and marked me deeply. So ever since that moment, I felt an obligation as Matt’s friend and as a storyteller to share his story in a sensitive, honest, and human way. 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 also as a human being with flaws and joys and struggles just like all of us.
But it took me over a decade to find the courage to give this project expression. When I read Judy Shepard’s book “The Meaning of Matthew;” which was such an honest telling of Matt’s life and what their family had gone through, I felt inspired to do whatever I could to contribute to their work and Matt’s legacy. I felt that I, along with his close friends, could now step forward and complete the portrait. The book and Judy’s courage honesty pushed me into action.
Q2. You were a very close friend of Matt during his teenage years. Where there any new things you discovered about Matt while filming this documentary?
Honestly, I was surprised to learn about how Matt was struggling. I realize there are different facets to everyone’s identity, and the Matt that I knew always seemed so happy, fun, and gregarious. It was sad to learn how much he was struggling inside.
I also was so surprised to find his writings and the piles of unsent letters and postcards he had written to his friends and family. They were all such beautiful, sensitive, thoughtful letters. I had missed his voice and forgotten so many things about him over time, so it was really great to find all those things. We were really happy to include his writings in the film and to allow Matt the opportunity to narrate his own story in a way.
Q3. It is evident that Matt had a lot of people in his life who cared and loved him very much. There are so many memories and stories that I’m sure you and his family wanted to share. Was there a particular memory and/or event you made sure was presented in the film?
It was really important to me and to everyone involved with the film that we stayed true to who Matt was—flaws and all. We worked hard to create an honest, sensitive portrait that didn’t gloss over his dark moments, because Matt’s struggles and his depression were a part of who he was too. Matt was a kind, sensitive, complex young man who was searching for love and acceptance. He wasn’t perfect and he wasn’t a martyr, which is very important for people to remember. Sadly, Matt faced many struggles and challenges in his life. He struggled with depression after being assaulted in Morocco. But what was so admirable about Matt was that he always worked so hard to overcome those struggles. He always worked hard to find his happiness. In fact, we all feel he was on the right path and emerging from his depression when he moved to Laramie, Wyoming.
Q4. Filming the people who were close to Matt and asking them to talk about his life I’m sure was very difficult for them. Where there any difficulties getting the people to talk in front of the camera?
We all wanted to do this for Matt. In terms of his close friends, I like to think we felt better knowing we were all doing this together. With that being said, it was very hard and painful at times. Even with all the years that have gone by, it was still quite difficult for everyone in the film, including myself, to relive and reflect upon those times and the pain that Matt had gone through in his all-too-brief life.
I feel honored, grateful and proud of all of us who worked together to collectively tell Matt’s story. By sharing the pain of losing him, maybe we can help someone out there going through similar struggles.
Q5. Anyone who watches the film will appreciate the dedication and passion you put in presenting Matt’s story to film. What do you want people to take away from this film?
As Matt’s friend, I want people to see Matt as a human being with extraordinary potential, who was so much more than the way in which he died.
I also hope when people watch the film and learn Matt’s story, they’ll get back in touch with the outrage and anger we all collectively felt back in 1998 and feel inspired to make a change. Although Matt died 17 years ago, the hate and ignorance that killed him is still prevalent in our society today. There are many Matt Shepards out there that still need support and validation. So I’d like people to reflect on the impact we can have on others and be inspired to live authentically with love, courage, and compassion.