Point and Shoot
By Louise Adams
Georgetown University MA Matt VanDyke left a coddled life in Baltimore to "do something extraordinary, to make a course correction, to take a crash course in manhood." What started as a 35,000 mile motorcycle tour of Arab nations became much more. He documented his journey with hundreds of hours of footage from helmet and handheld cameras, which is interspersed amongst follow-up interviews in two-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Marshall Curry's intense two-hour documentary "Point and Shoot."
Wanting to be free of his OCD (fear of trash cans and sugar, and a hand-washing obsession), and inspired by Hollywood films and '80s Australian filmmaker/adventurer Alby Mangels, VanDyke landed in Gibraltar, then hit north Africa, including Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan, growing a beard to de-Americanize himself, teaching himself motorcycle wheelies and changing his name to Max Hunter to fit his new-found swagger.
He contacted the Baltimore Examiner to be a war correspondent in Iraq, where he learned how to handle weapons and first felt he was on the wrong side of the camera, "wanting to be shaping, not documenting." He took lots of risks, like planting an American flag in Osama bin Laden's old house. In Tripoli, he met Nuri, a "Libyan hippie" with whom he became fast friends before he returned stateside in December 2010.
The Arab Spring began in Tunisia in February 2011, and VanDyke wanted to return to help his network of buddies, so he flew into Cairo on February 28, then drove over the border to Benghazi, Libya, where he joined Nuri's civilian rebel unit. In the most-filmed war in history, including his own footage, VanDyke noted the oddity of "preparing for war while watching it on TV."
His scrappy, underfunded anti-Gaddafi regiment scrounged for leftover guns and abandoned ordnance, which they mounted on all-but-demolished trucks to fight government forces. After one attack, VanDyke was injured, captured, and tortured, and was afraid that his confiscated videos would implicate, and possibly lead to the execution of, his compatriots. His five-and-a-half month imprisonment made international headlines.
When VanDyke was finally freed by other escaping prisoners, the insurgence had changed. NATO was now involved, and, against human rights activists' advice, he returned to his unit but remained conflicted about his role. He felt like an actor when he was filming the action. "Should I affect, or document, events?" he wondered. "What am I? A filmmaker or a fighter?" Many soldiers wanted to be recorded holding impressive weapons to create an idealized image to share on their Facebook pages.
This gritty, engrossing film portrays an indelible image of grassroots fighting in totalitarian regimes. After Gaddafi was killed (which was broadcast in all its gory glory), Nuri refused to step on an image of the fallen leader, even after his bloody 42-year reign. He wasn't interested in revenge, only freedom.
And, in the age where everybody with a camera phone becomes a de facto historical documentarian, the revolution(s) will certainly continue to be televised.