Walter Boulden was living in Casper, Wyo., when he first met Matthew Shepard in a local theater group. Boulden eventually became the teen’s guidance counselor.
“Matt was the kind of person who could make anyone feel comfortable and had a smile that would light up a room,” Boulden recalls.
“Matt stayed in contact with me long after he moved overseas. I guess I was like the older uncle he could talk to about anything. I was the one who finally talked him into moving back to Laramie and attending college at his parents’ alma mater.”
But in 1998, Shepard, who was gay, was tortured and left to die near Laramie, the victim of a hate crime that shocked the nation. His death became a rallying cry and led to an act of Congress amending hate crimes legislation.
Boulden and the Rev. Roger Schmidt, who both live in the metro area and are featured prominently in the film, will join the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project for a post-screening discussion.
“I have done workshops around LGBT issues with high school students who were either not born when Matt was murdered or who were only 1 or 2 years old,” says Boulden, now a professor in the social work program at Park University.
“For them, he is an LGBT historic icon, but they know little about his story or the story of his death. The film provides a human face to that ‘icon,’ insight into who Matt was and reminds viewers of the issues that were prevalent at the time of his murder and remain even today.”
This is the type of film that has become emblematic of Out Here Now. The fest celebrates its 15th year with the kickoff premiere of “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine” today. The main eight-day event runs June 26-July 3.
Established at the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport in 2000, Out Here Now originally patterned itself after San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival. It soon garnered a national reputation among filmgoers, premiering such efforts as the Oscar-winning drama “Beginners” and the rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
“The ability for the LGBT community to tell their own stories is what has changed tremendously since our first fest,” festival director Jamie Rich says. “You’re seeing the work of people who have grown up with digital technology video as their way of storytelling. The subjects and characters are much richer.
“In the beginning, there was the shock of ‘I’m gay!’ Back then it seemed the lesbian always had to die at the end of the movie.”
Rich said that Out Here Now is attempting to go beyond merely showing movies; it aims for effecting social change. For the last eight years, the fest has partnered with KC’s Human Rights Commission’s Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
This year the commission is sponsoring “The Case Against 8,” a behind-the-scenes documentary about the legal team that helped end marriage discrimination in California. It screens June 19.
In conjunction with the screening of this Sundance winner, Jim MacDonald and Andy Schuerman — two of the plaintiffs from the court case challenging Missouri’s same-sex marriage ban — will lead a discussion after the film.
Another film Rice is thrilled about featuring is “To Be Takei,” a profile of “Star Trek” actor, Web sage and gay icon George Takei, screening June 27.
“Not many people know his story — with his Japanese internment camp background, for instance. He just refuses to be negative. He’s outspoken and he’s maintained this relevance in pop culture. It’s an amazing story about an amazing individual,” Rich says.
Other festival highlights include:
“First Period”: This ’80s high school comedy is pitched as John Waters meets John Hughes. Saturday, June 28.
“Lilting”: The Sundance winner featuring Ben Whishaw (“Skyfall”) and Cheng Pei Pei (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) deals with communication and loss. Friday, June 27.
“My Straight Son”: A gay father tries to help his heterosexual son navigate the teenage years. Sunday, June 29.
“Out to Kill”: Everyone’s a suspect in this gay-themed murder mystery. Director Rob Williams and lead actor Tom Goss — a Warrensburg native — will be in attendance. Tuesday, July 1.
“Waiting in the Wings”: Sally Struthers, Shirley Jones and Christopher Atkins are among the eccentric group assembled for a musical comedy about a male stripper and a theater nerd cast in each other’s roles. Writer/actor Jeffrey A. Johns conducts a Q&A after the screening. Thursday, June 26.
“These are great stories,” Rich says. “Gay people don’t share a common sexual experience; we share a common cultural experience. The hallmark of a really strong LGBT movie is somebody finding their own way in the world without the definition of how society wants to define them. The freedom to be yourself is always a universal theme.”
“Out Here Now: The Kansas City LGBT Film Festival” features screenings through July 3 at Tivoli Cinemas, 4050 Pennsylvania Ave. More at OutHereNow.com.