Tuesday 17 February 2015

MATT SHEPARD IS A FRIEND OF MIND - Review By Greg Klymkiw - He's a friend to us all

Matt Shepard
is a Friend of Mine
Dir. Michele Josue

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Michele Josue manages to pull of the near impossible. She not only tells us a very personal story about her friendship with the sweet, brilliant young man named in the film's title, she constructs a biographical documentary of his life, whilst etching an indelible cinematic portrait of his unique spirit and character. Josue is so successful juggling these elements that I left the cinema wanting to be Matt Shepard's friend too. In fact, I can't imagine anyone seeing this film and not feeling likewise.

What a great guy!

In spite of the fact that this is a film, it uncannily manages to do what only the best cinema can do by using all the gifts and wonders the medium can bring to bear upon a subject and plunge us deep into its very essence. Matt Shepard might well be Josue's friend, but she's neither self-tub-thumping the fact, nor is she hoarding this beautiful human being all to herself.

Matt Shepard is, indeed, a friend to all of us.

First and foremost, because he is a human being and we're given this opportunity to get to know him. Granted, it's a mere ninety minutes of running time, but Josue expertly weaves home movies, photographs, interviews with friends, family and teachers, Matt's private writings and his vast correspondence with all those dear to him. It seems, no stone is left unturned.

Sadly, none of us will ever really get to know him, but Josue's created the next best thing.

Josue begins with what ended Matt's life. On Oct. 12, 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming, the 21-year-old Matt Shepard was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence and left for dead. For all intents and purposes, he might as well have been. He died soon after in hospital. A young life, so full of promise, was cut short by a senseless act rooted in hatred.

Matt Shepard was murdered by two hate-filled young men because he was gay. Even harder to believe is the news footage of supposed Christians parading homophobic, hate-spewing filth on placards and hurling anti-Gay invective from their mouths when Matt Shepard's life was being celebrated at his funeral.

In death, however, Matt Shepard became a symbol, an emblem, a trademark if you will, for the anti-hatred lobby. Josue's film does not ignore this important element of Matt's legacy and weaves it into the fabric of the film superbly. Still, though, we come back to what Josue does so well - she gives us Matt in as much glory as possible.

We learn about his charmed childhood, his loving family, his delightful antics in childhood like leaving pretty stones in the mailboxes of his neighbours, dressing up as Dolly Parton for Halloween and always being the centre of attention - not that he demanded it at all, but rather, he was such a dazzling, compelling young man that he naturally commanded it. We're privy to his private struggles with coming to grips with his sexuality, to be sure, but that's merely one element of seeing a young man blossom as he searches for everything he's all about. His love for family, friends and travel seemed limitless. His sense of humour and sensitivity unparalleled. His time during an American boarding school in Switzerland becomes almost magical. Sure, we're in the Alps. That's damn magical, just as it is when we follow him on trips with his friends throughout Europe. However, what is magic, real magic, is his love for his friends and theirs for him.

If anything, the magic of this film is love and most of all, the love Matt Shepard gave.

There is darkness in his life. Vacationing with his school chums in Morocco turned into a nightmare that never seemed to leave him when he was beaten and gang-raped in a dark Marrakesh alleyway by six thugs. Here, his life did indeed change. He began to carry himself inwardly, like a victim. He kept his pain to himself. He stopped his activities in the theatre and became a haunted shell of who he once was.

Most of all, he wanted to come home. This meant returning to his home state of Wyoming where he enrolled in college in the small city of Laramie. Here, he seemed to begin to find himself again. Here, he was at home. Here, was where Matt Shepard was kidnapped, beaten and tortured to death for being gay.

The anger and frustration one feels just watching this play out seems almost incalculable - even as a mere viewer of a film. One can't even begin to imagine the feelings of Matt's family and friends and by extension, the whole community of mankind that expressed and felt the deepest shock over someone being murdered simply out of hatred. Josue nails it here, though. She introduces an element into the film in its final third that presents a deeply harrowing, haunting, moving and finally spiritual sequence which forces all who watch it to look into the mirrors that reflect their own souls.

This is one great documentary. Try to see it in a movie theatre with the fellowship of other human beings. You'll all be soaring.

Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine begins its theatrical Canadian run via VFRPR at the Magic Lantern Carlton Cinemas in Toronto February 20th, 2015, with additional cities and screens to follow across the country. Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matt Shepard's Mom and Dad to host select opening weekend screenings. If it's not yet playing in your city, DEMAND IT! Matthew's memory has been enshrined in the good work of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and in the passage of the The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. Be sure to read Remarks by President Obama at a Reception Commemorating the Enactment of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act by clicking HERE.