It is hard to believe it has been more than 16 years since a gay, 21-year old student named Matthew Shepard was beaten by two hoodlums and left to die in a remote field outside of Laramie, Wyoming. Reports of the crime shocked people across the US, leading even conservatives to feel sympathy for a LGBT person for perhaps the first time. Shepard’s death on October 12th, 1998 is considered an act of martyrdom by many, despite more recent efforts by some writers to discredit this or claim that the young man somehow deserved his fate.
It has also inspired no small number of plays, films and other works of art. The latest documentary, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, proves to be the most intimate and detailed account yet of Shepard’s life, death and cultural impact. Written and directed by his close friend since their high school years together, Michele Josue, the film is now playing at the AMC Empire 25 in New York. It is scheduled to open at the Laemmle Noho 7 in Los Angeles on February 13th before expanding to other cities.
Josue, in an impressive filmmaking debut, draws from Shepard’s personal journals, photos and videos as well as interviews with his parents, other friends, former teachers and guidance counselors, and even the bartender (Matt Galloway) who served Shepard and his two attackers (Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney) on that fateful night. As one of those interviewed accurately observes, “He could have been anybody’s son.” Josue also offers first-hand insights into her subject’s/friend’s tumultuous teen years, when the Shepard family moved to Saudi Arabia and Matt was sent to a boarding school for American students in Switzerland. He was able to travel extensively in Europe and the Middle East, including a sojourn to Morocco where Matt claimed he was gang-raped. Josue and Shepard’s other friends subsequently noticed personality changes in Matt that lead the director to muse, “Would his life have been different if we hadn’t gone to Morocco?”.
Much of the doc’s final third will be familiar to those of us old enough at the time to have followed the aftermath of Shepard’s death, his killers’ trial and the bold decision by his parents not to seek the death penalty. Josue remains impressively objective for one who was so close to her subject, and Craig Trudeau supplies beautiful cinematography of the Wyoming countryside. As Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine makes clear, there is still much to learn about and from its namesake.
Two recent foreign-language films now available on DVD/VOD deal with young gay men coming of age, one more successfully than the other. Diemo Kemmesies’ Silent Youth (Ariztical Entertainment) is a Berlin-set love story between the optimistic Marlo (attractive jock Martin Bruchmann) and moody, troubled Kirill (Josef Mattes). True to the title, much of the movie is dialogue-free. The initial emphasis on subtle looks and body language between the two men is sexy, but it leaves a bit too much for viewers to fill in the blanks and eventually gives way to uncomfortably blunt demands on Kirill’s part. Not my cup of romantic tea, neither when I was the characters’ age or now.
Boys (Wolfe Video), by Dutch — and female — director Mischa Kamp, is refreshing in its upending of coming-of-age clichés. It also deals with the burgeoning romance between two teenagers, track stars Sieger (Gijs Blom) and Marc (Ko Zandvliet), but they are generally well-adjusted. Rather, Sieger’s heterosexual, delinquent brother is the source of most of his and their father’s angst. Supported by a soundtrack of peppy pop songs, Boys is enjoyable at any age.
Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine: A-
Silent Youth: C+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.