the laramie project

2002

Written and Directed by: Moisés Kaufman

No, it isn't strictly a lesbian movie. The Laramie Project is a queer film, and once again it took television (HBO) to bring this amazing story to the screen. It affects us all, and should have the effect of reminding us that we are all in this fight together, and that there are lots of straight people in the world fighting for our rights right along with us. It is also a film that allows us to reflect, not only about the victims of hate crimes and the atrocities committed against them, but about the violence that gets committed against the GLBT community every day in the form of evil words and unjust laws that remove (or simply don't protect) our basic human rights.

When Matthew Shepherd, a 21 year-old gay man, was beaten to death and left to die tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming, it sparked anger across the entire world. Gays and lesbians everywhere faced their worst fear; the fear of being physically attacked for just being themselves. Here was evidence that this kind of evil exists, not that we all really needed such evidence.

Of course, it also made not only the townspeople of Laramie, but the entire world understand that killers like this can be bred anywhere, and they are. In the words of Melissa Etheridge:

"We all gasp this can't happen here
We're all much too civilized
Where can these monsters hide
But they are knocking on our front door
They're rocking in our cradles
They're preaching in our churches
And eating at our tables."
(Scarecrow)

In other words, the victims and the perpetrators of violence can be anywhere, at any time. That, more than anything, makes this film more horrifying than any horror film.

The premise of the story, which comes across as a pseudo-documentary, is to trace the experience of a group of young people from the Tectonic Theatre Company who came to Laramie six times in the year after Matthew Shepherd's death in order to interview the townspeople about how they felt about the tragedy and to write a play about it. Neither the play nor the film is about Matt Shepherd himself, it's about the people who knew him, the people who were most affected by his death. The play is based on actual transcripts from the interviews, and the film version resembles the stage version pretty closely, though in a more realist way.

What results is a fascinating mixture between documentary, theatre and narrative film. There is a plot here, an actual story. The story is how so much can change, and yet how so little has changed. Certainly the lives of the people involved were changed irrevocably, but as the film points out, Matthew Shepherd's death did little to actually change the laws against hate crime and discrimination in the US or anywhere else.

What fascinated me most about the story was that the theatre troupe who came to do the story became as much a part of the story as Matthew Shepherd and his family and friends. They are our eyes and ears, dragging us into this horror, willingly or unwillingly. Three of them are gay, and they express their fear at asking the questions they knew they had to ask at such a time, in such a place. They asked themselves, rightfully, if they weren't putting themselves in actual, physical danger. What would stop some other gay-hater from dragging them off, pistol whipping them and hanging them from a fence? The questions would have seemed like a monstrous overreaction in any other time, in any other place.

I'm torn between whether the high-calibre stunt casting actually helped or hurt the film. After a while I stopped being surprised each time yet another famous face appeared on the screen for a few brief moments. Some atrociously overact (Laura Linney, Joshua Jackson) but others were spot on. Christina Ricci as Matthew's best friend was the most touching. Her big eyes flooded with emotion in every scene, and we feel her loss like we might have felt the real woman's loss had she been telling us her own story. Most of the time, because the words coming out of their mouths were not those of professional screenwriters but of ordinary people, we could almost forget about the casting. Almost.

The film was directed and written by Moisés Kaufman, the same man who was among the original theatre troupe (and one of the out gay men) who asked the original questions. Clea DuVall as Amanda, another of the original five, is just so real. Her scene standing in the snow as she asks the conservative Reverend how he feels about Matthew Shepherd's death is haunting. Afterwards she berates herself - how could she let him say those things to her and just saying nothing? How could she let him get away with that? Sadly, all over the world every day people get away with the same veiled hatred in the guise of free speech.

But I guess in the end it's better to hear the dissident voices than to have them gagged, even if they are preaching hate. At least then we know who they are. We don't want silent tolerance, we want acceptance. I don't think I have ever really thought about the expression "live and let live" before seeing this film. Now every time I hear it I will shudder, because just as one character says, in reality it is sometimes just shorthand for "keep quiet and I'll have no reason to hurt you". The film makes this interpretation for us, and it is nothing short of bone-chilling.

I expect the film to spark a lot of emotion, among gay and straight people alike. I cried like I haven't cried in a long time, and my heart will probably ache every time I think of this film for the rest of my life. I have these images in my head of the stock footage of Ellen Degeneres saying to a gathering of people, tears in her eyes, "This is what I've tried my whole life to prevent." Of Bill Clinton begging his country to reject violence against those who are different. Of the Laramie townspeople who dressed up as angels and floated through the town, as a silent vigil for the dead and as the strongest of all rebuttals against preachers of hate.

The last images we see in The Laramie Project are the lights of Laramie, Wyoming as Matthew Shepherd must have seen them from where he was tied to the fence. They're beautiful. Then we see his eyes closing, and I can feel something icy clutch hold of my heart. This was a low-budget, sometimes choppily-made film, but the director knew exactly what he needed to show for maximum impact. He plays his audience like a well-tuned harp, and really we've got no choice but to let him. Usually I resent it when I know I'm being manipulated, but in this case I've decided just to let myself be moved, and be sad, and be angry, all at once.

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