Michele Josue’s debut documentary is a tribute to her friend Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay college student murdered in October 1998 outside Laramie, Wyoming. His ordeal prompted an impassioned national conversation about homophobia and hate crimes, but Josue recalls the media frenzy as a surreal and painful blur, the moment when her beloved classmate was transformed into a symbol, widely embraced yet little known.
The present tense of the title, Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, describes the attitude of her interviewees, who grieve Shepard’s loss but still feel the impact of his presence. Josue met Shepard at The American School in Switzerland, where he spent the last years of high school after his father took a job abroad. That engaging kid from Casper traveled through Europe, Asia, and the Middle East — and experienced a sexual assault during a trip with other TASIS students.
This was a turning point, and Josue pieces together Shepard’s difficult search for a safe, welcoming environment, one that he appeared to have found in Laramie. Josue revisits his life and death with heart-wrenching effectiveness, but even in the recollections of his closest friends, Shepard remains an elusive figure.
The qualities they describe — a questioning soul with an open-hearted nature and an unresolved life — make him a vessel for personal empathy and group identification. Josue tries to reclaim his narrative with this intimate, positive portrait, but while Shepard’s brave and resourceful parents encourage her, they realized long ago that his death means he no longer belongs solely to them.