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The world knows Matthew Shepard. But Michele Josue will always think of her old friend as simply Matt.

Matt from boarding school in Switzerland, who acted alongside Josue in school plays such as Chekhov's “Three Sisters” and “Godspell.” Matt, who was truly free on stage. Matt, who liked to kid around with friends.

Josue and Matt grew close before he came out as gay -- years before he was tied to a buck-rail fence and beaten with a .357 Magnum outside Laramie. She knew Matt before he died of his injuries, before he became a symbol of the hate and intolerance faced by gays and lesbians in rural America.

Josue, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, shares memories about Shepard in a new documentary, “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine.” The product of nearly four years of filming, fundraising and traveling, the documentary won the Cleveland International Film Festival’s top prize, The Roxanne T. Mueller Audience Choice Award, March 30.

Until now, three films have been made about Shepard, said Jason Marsden, a friend of Shepard’s and executive director of the Mathew Shepard Foundation. “Anatomy of a Hate Crime” was released in 2001. The following year saw the release of “The Mathew Shepard Story,” with Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston, and “The Laramie Project” a feature starring Christina Ricci that was based on the play of the same name.

“Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” is different in that it was made by one of his friends, Marsden said.

“It is solely about people who knew Matt,” said Marsden, who appears in the film talking about his and Shepard’s love of politics and international affairs. “It’s about his life through the lens of people who were closest to him.”

Josue traveled around the globe to interview people who knew Shepard, including his parents, Dennis and Judy. Her film also includes 1990s-era high school photos and camcorder videos of Shepard and Josue in plays and traveling together.

That footage is mixed with contemporary shots of Josue visiting the site where Shepard was beaten, the hospital where he was pronounced dead and a priest who ministered at the University of Wyoming campus after the murder.

School friends

Josue and Shepard met at The American School in Switzerland. He ended up there after his family moved from Casper to Saudi Arabia, which lacked an American-style secondary school at the time. 

Acting was their thing.

“I think because Matt was such a sensitive person and he was so empathetic, he could get into the mindset of another human being and feel what it was like to be in their shoes,” she said. “That’s what made him such a great actor.”

Shepard came out during his freshman year of college. Josue, who was younger, was still in boarding school. In sharing personal details of Shepard’s life, Josue is hoping to strip away Shepard’s larger-than-life legacy.

“No human being can live up to the standards of an icon,” she said. ”People are going to inevitably feel disappointed.

"The thing is, Matt never asked for any of this," she continued. "He was just a normal kid, a normal human being, going through life, trying to find his way in the world. I think that’s what was lost in the Matthew Shepard narrative.”

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Josue recalled feeling uncomfortable as she watched her friend morph into a symbol. In addition to the symbol of a martyr killed by hate, he became an emblem of gay civil rights. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act, passed 11 years after Shepard’s murder, extended federal hate crimes law to attacks based on sexual orientation.

“I do understand the significance of what he’s done for the LGBT community,” Josue said. “I don’t want to take away from that. But I want people to know he was just a boy, a human being who was not unlike their friend or brother or son.”

Josue makes Shepard real by sharing intimate details of his life, even unpleasant ones such as when he was sexually assaulted in Morocco or when he fell into bouts of depression.

By depicting Shepard as a real person Josue also attempts to remind viewers that Shepard’s murder could have happened to anyone. Two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, are serving life sentences for the crime. 

It's been 15 years since Shepard died. Josue needed time to process his murder before embarking on the film.

"I wasn’t emotionally ready. I don’t think any of his friends were ready," she said. "We were so young. I think I was just 19 when I found out about the news. It took all this time to emotionally gain enough perspective.

"I knew I always wanted to share a story and honor him in a film. I just wanted to do it justice.”

Reach state reporter Laura Hancock at 307-266-0581 or at laura.hancock@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter: @laurahancock.

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