Film attempts to depict human side of victim
Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming student murdered in a hate crime, is an icon in the public eye, according to Michle Josue, director of the documentary “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine.”
Few accounts of his death reveal his human side, but yesterday’s screening of the documentary in the Livingston Student Center showed this perspective of the tragedy.
The Tyler Clementi Center partnered up with the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities to present the movie, which documents the life, death and memory of Matt Shepard.
Two guest speakers, Beth Loffreda, author of “Losing Matt Shepard,” and Michele Josue, director of the documentary, hosted a post-screening discussion.
“The film is a chance for people to reflect upon how important and difficult it is to create historical memory, to make stories that serve the past and the present both as precisely and as beautifully as possible,” Loffreda said.
Shepard was a political science student at Wyoming University who fell victim to a hate crime and was tragically kidnapped and murdered in 1998.
Rick Lee, associate director of the Tyler Clementi Center, said he decided to bring the documentary to Rutgers after researching the 15-year anniversary of Shepard’s murder.
The aftermath of the murder galvanized the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to take action against homophobia and anti-gay violence, and set the stage for the landmark Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2009, Lee said.
The film screening kicked off this year’s RU Ally Week, Lee said.
“We wish to introduce students to this important historical figure in LGBT and American history and to create a conversation, especially among young people, about Matt Shepard’s legacy 15 years after this death,” he said.
As a close friend of Shepard, Josue brought an intimate perspective to the event.
“When Matt was attacked, I was a sophomore in film school in Boston, and that was the very first time I saw how hostile and cruel the world could be,” she said. “I was devastated.”
Josue said her heart broke when she saw Shepard’s humanity slowly fading away. Her friend became an icon of the hate and intolerance the LGBT community struggles against, and his identity was forever tied to horrendous, unspeakable violence.
“I wanted to make this film to share with the world that before Matt became ‘Matthew Shepard,’ he was a normal, complex, gay young man with friends and family who supported and loved him,” she said. “I think it’s important for the world to really know that.”
Loffreda added that this portrait also demonstrates the great amount of grief experienced by his loved ones, and how the loss still burdens them today.
Josue described how making this film after all these years reminded her how much she misses Shepard and his friendship.
“The reason I waited so many years to make this film is because I wanted to be sure I was professionally and emotionally ready to handle such a difficult project and reconnecting with Matt so vividly,” she said. “I knew it was going to be one of the hardest things I would ever do.”
Josue explained that directing this movie helped heal her by giving her the opportunity to transform the tragic event into something positive for the world.
Loffreda was a Rutgers alumna who had started teaching at the University of Wyoming when Shepard was murdered.
“Matt’s death cast Wyoming suddenly into international attention, attention that was largely negative and felt as generic and unfair by its residents,” she said. “I wanted to try to make sense of Wyoming — particularly what kind of place it was for the LGBT people who lived in the state — in, if possible, a more nuanced way.”
Loffreda focused her book on the effect his death had on people who had never known him, but acted like his death affected them in some way. She was fascinated by the way the murder transformed into a story that so many people, even strangers, felt intensely attached to.
She hopes that readers of her book will gain a richer understanding of how LGBT people make a life for themselves in seemingly inhospitable territories.
“I also hope that people will gain a more complex understanding of how homophobia plays out in both scenes of violence, like what happened to Matt when he died, and in everyday scenes of daily life, like what Matt likely faced before he died,” she said.
Lee mentioned because more LGBT people have opened up about their identities and legislation on marriage equality has changed, many tend to think these acts of violence no longer occur.
However, cities with several gay communities, such as New York, have seen an increase in anti-gay hate crimes during this past year.
Jeffrey Longhofer, director of the Tyler Clementi Center, said the film reminds people that anti-gay hate still exists. It shows that even though the LGBT community and its allies have made progress since Shepard’s death, inequality and hate crimes still continue to affect these communities.
“It think it’s a film that helps us imagine the distance that we have traveled since Matt’s tragic murder 15 years ago to the present and how much further we have to go,” he said.