ABOVE: Watch filmmaker Michele Josue and Dennis and Judy Shepard on Global’s The Morning Show.
TORONTO — Many people know Matthew Shepard as the university student who was beaten and left to die in a field near Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998.
Six days after he was found tied to a fence — suffering from 18 blows to the head that caused four skull fractures — Shepard died in a Colorado hospital.
Police learned that Shepard, who was gay, had been targeted by two young men who pretended to be gay to lure him into a vehicle and rob him.
Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson are serving two consecutive life sentences for Shepard’s murder.
Shepard, who was 21 at the time of his death, became the face of homophobia in America and helped get sexual orientation included in the country’s hate crime laws.
His story also spawned several plays and films — including the acclaimed The Laramie Project and the made-in-Toronto TV movie The Matthew Shepard Story — and inspired songs by artists like Elton John and Melissa Etheridge.
Now, 16 years after his murder, Shepard’s friend Michele Josue has made a documentary about the young man she and others close to him knew as Matt.
Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine has its Canadian premiere this weekend at the Inside Out film festival in Toronto.
“It took me all this time to be emotionally ready to make this film,” explained Josue during an appearance on Global’s The Morning Show.
The L.A.-based filmmaker had another reason. “The hatred and intolerance that killed Matt is still present in society so I felt we had this responsibility to keep reminding the world about what happened,” said Josue.
“There is this entire generation of young people who had no idea about what happened to Matt Shepard.”
The film was made with the blessing of Shepard’s parents Judy and Dennis, who have become advocates for LGBT rights.
Watching the film wasn’t easy, though. Dennis admitted: “It brought back some great memories and it also brought back the horror of the hospital visit and the funeral and the trial afterwards.”
For Judy, the film was an opportunity to humanize a young man who became a cultural icon.
“We felt that Matt was becoming someone we didn’t know — he was becoming Matthew Shepard, not our Matt,” she said.
“We wanted people to know that Matt was a human being, not some perfection of good taste and manners because he really wasn’t all that. He was a great kid but he was not perfect.”