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Matthew Shepard documentary returns to CIFF, courtesy of a festival regular

Matthew Shepard was killed in an anti-gay hate crime in 1998.
Michele Josue
"Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine"
Matthew Shepard was killed in an anti-gay hate crime in 1998.

“Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” is getting an encore screening at Cleveland International Film Festival this weekend, a decade after it was first shown at the festival.

21-year-old Matthew Shepard was brutally attacked in 1998 in Southeast Wyoming, tied to a fence and left to die because he was gay. He later died from his injuries. His killing became one of the most high-profile anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes in American History and lead to the passage of the 2009 landmark federal law, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The documentary won CIFF’s Roxanne T. Mueller Audience Choice Award for Best Film in 2014. To commemorate the 10-year anniversary of that award and October 2023 marking the 25th anniversary of his death, CIFF has a retrospective screening of “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” Sunday at the Connor Palace theater.

“Before the film even played, the whole sold out crowd in the theater … they all stood up and gave the Shepard’s a standing ovation and it’s a moment I will never, never forget,” said the film’s director Michele Josue, who was a close high-school friend of Shepard. “To be able to, I guess in a way, pay back those audience and return with Matt’s story, it really is quite significant. It means so much.”

Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis, attended the festival 10 years ago when it was hosted at Tower City Cinema – it’s now in Playhouse Square – and they will be back for the rescreening.

Michele Josue and Matt Shepard as teenagers.
Michele Josue
"Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine"
Michele Josue and Matt Shepard as teenagers.

“We’re so grateful to Michele for doing it. It gave everybody the opportunity to get to know more than the Matthew Shepard of the headline – get to know the Matt we all knew and loved,” Judy Shepard said. “It was really important to all of us, his friends and his family, that people understand that Matt was first and foremost a human being.”

The Shepard’s continue to this day to share their son’s story and advocate for LGBTQ+ equality and respect.

“I feel like we owed it to Matt to do that, to try to make the world a better place for his peers and his friends. As long as the press was paying as much attention to the situation as they were, we had the opportunity to really open people’s minds.”

Dennis Shepard said a rescreening will help continue spread awareness of LGBTQ+ struggle.

“A re-education of a lot of people who have forgotten or didn’t know who Matt was and the changes that he helped cause in this country and around the world,” Dennis Shepard said. “I think it’s important to bring it back up.”

After touring film festival circuits in 2014, Dennis Shepard said CIFF was his favorite festival.

“It was so much fun,” he said. “The crowds were so enthusiastic. It’s dear to my heart.”

Something new from Michele Josue

Josue has another film screening at CIFF titled "Food Roots," which follows a Filipino American restaurateur Billy Dec as he rediscovers his heritage through recipes in the Philippines.

"The film festival has been supportive of my career personally," Josue said. "Just to be back is just really amazing."

“Food Roots” plays Tuesday at 2:35 p.m. and Wednesday 5:05 p.m. at the Connor Palace theater.

“With the FilAm community, just trying to put them center so people get to know who we really are, I think it started from Matt,” Josue said. “My passion is to provide some sort of amplification or some justice to communities of people who don’t normally get that.”

In 2023 at CIFF, Josue screened “Nurse Unseen,” a documentary showcasing the experience of Filipino American nurses, who were adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gabriel Kramer is a reporter/producer and the host of “NewsDepth,” Ideastream Public Media's news show for kids.