Friday, 13 November 2009

The Laramie Project

A little over eleven years ago Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming. A 21 year old gay man, he was taken from a bar, beaten horribly and repeatedly, and left tied to a fence in the middle of the night, for no less than 18 hours in fact, before he was finally discovered. He lived a few more days in hospital before finally dying.

The murder, as it became, was international news. Around the States there were vigils for his survival. News crews swarmed Laramie as people took stock and came to terms with what happened - and, it seems, not so much with the fact that someone from their town had been so brutally murdered, but as much with the fact that the people who committed the atrocity were their neighbours.

The Laramie Project began life as a play. Director Mois├ęs Kaufman and fellow members of the Tectonic Theatre Company went to Laramie and spent time collecting hundreds of hours of recordings, interviews with the members of the community, both those who knew Matthew (or Matt as he apparently always want to be known) and those who did not. They then turned these interviews into a play, documenting in their words the aftermath the atrocity forced upon the town. In turn, this became a movie along the same lines, also directed by Kaufman.

I've known the story of Matthew Shepard for years, since I was lead to it in university in line with something I was working on at the time. I was probably slightly too young to recognise the gravity of what was going on when it happened, but it is something that, since I discoverd it, has always drawn me back. There are few events in recent history that seem to have galvanised the queer community the same way Matthew Shepard (as an incident now, not a person) did. One thinks of Stonewall, forty years ago. All that portrayed in last year's Milk. Matthew Shepard falls in there. And then we end up with Proposition 8, and you realise how little progress has actually been made.

I found the film The Laramie Project extremely moving. I wish it had been a documentary, but I also recognise that it probably would have been impossible to get the people who told their stories to a cassette tape to say the same thing on video, especially with the same emotion, clarity, truthfulness and brevity. I think then that maybe it should have featured people less well known so that you weren't constantly going 'oh, there's Laura Linney. Oh, there's Peter Fonda. Oh there's Steve Buscemi.' And so on. But then by the end of it I didn't care about that. Structurally I do think it wasn't amazingly impressive, but then again I'm assuming with HBO behind it, especially back in 2002, it was a made-for-TV film, which I guess would work somewhat better - I don't know why, considering that I watched it on a small screen the same way I do so many films, but for some reason I always find watching something in the context of it being on Television, as opposed to on a television, makes it seem different. It seamlessly blends old news footage into the story, and also believably turns dramatised footage into news footage. And I found myself close to tears at many points throughout the film - from an archival snippet of Ellen saying she did what she did to try and stop things like Matthew Shepard happening, to such said-before queer melodrama as a local saying it made them so afraid because somewhere inside we all know that it could happen to us sometime. It all, in the end, worked.

Ultimately, I think my own closeness to the story makes it hard for me to judge the film based on its specific merits. Though maybe that means I should judge it amazingly effective, if it made me feel that the specifics of its construction and execution are irrelevant to my opinion.

All I keep coming back to is that this happened only marginally more than a decade ago. Since then there have been things to possibly signal a change may be in the air. Brokeback Mountain, to bring out a truly flogged horse, was a mammoth success - also a story set in Wyoming. (And such a bizarre coincidence that the original story by Annie Proulx was first published almost exactly a year before Shepard died.) Brokeback really, I think, broke a lot of ground, in terms of visibility, though my issues with the film remain - by setting it retrospectively it allows people the ability to say 'Sure, it was bad then, but we're not like that now' when we clearly are like that now. But that's a rant for another day. (Also worth noting - Good Machine, the production company behind the film, was co-founded by James Schamus, who produced Brokeback.)

Then again, Prop 8 was defeated. Gay marriage (or civil partnerships, whatever - don't get me started there either) is still illegal in my home country. Maybe The Laramie Project is much more relevant now that we'd like to think. I don't think Matthew Shepard died in vain, but I'm not entirely convinced what should have come of it has come it. And maybe that makes this film more important now than it was seven years ago when it was made, and this story more important now than when it was created eleven years ago.

I'm not going to rate this film out of five because that seems crass. And here's a link to the foundation founded by his parents.

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