‘Point and Shoot’ Wins at Tribeca: An Interview with Director Marshall Curry and Subject Matthew VanDyke
By Emma Diab
Director Marshall Curry’s Point and Shoot took the Best Documentary Feature award at the Tribeca Film Festival last week — a prize well-deserved not only for spotlighting the story of Matthew VanDyke, a man whose life is steeped in enough drama, action, and tragedy to put the most outlandish work of fiction to shame, but in providing a platform to view a chapter from the Arab Spring from beyond the headlines.
VanDyke’s story began in 2006, when the soft-spoken young man with obsessive compulsive disorder decided to start out on a 30,000-mile journey across the Middle East and North Africa. Together with his camera, a motorcycle, and the desire for what he called a “crash course in manhood,” Point and Shoot was crafted from VanDyke’s hundreds of hours of footage touring the region, working as an embedded journalist in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then fighting as a revolutionary against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya. Curry, director of two Academy Award-nominated documentary features Street Fight and If a Tree Falls, took on the project, fashioning the footage in the editing room into an intense 82-minute record of a coming-of-age story in the midst of a foreign revolution and the pits of a Libyan state prison.
Though the film’s subject matter contends with death, war, and imprisonment, Curry is never heavy-handed with those scenes, and is triumphant in expertly balancing the more difficult footage with examples of the lightheartedness that serve to flesh out the documentary further. The audience comes away with a better understanding of VanDyke as well as the people around him, most notably the camaraderie that exists between the revolutionaries, through memorable scenes like that of being welcomed into the fray by a jovial group of his buddies singing and dancing. These moments of warmth are especially important in capturing the feeling of belonging and friendship, since one of the main catalysts of VanDyke’s reentry into Libya for the sake of revolution was coming to the aid of the friends he made while on his motorcycle journey.
Armed with a gun, in addition to his camera, VanDyke became a revolutionary, fighting and carrying out missions with his unit. After an ambush, during which he was captured, he woke up in a prison to the sounds of a man being tortured in a room above, his camera confiscated. Point and Shoot compensates for the lack of footage of the confinement by employing the use of animations from his perspective of the small cement confines, utilizing hand-drawn cell animations layered over a 3-D model of the prison.
After returning to the United States, VanDyke compiled some of the footage and sought a director to help him present his story to the world. Today, he works to support the revolutionaries in Syria, and has put together a 15-minute documentary called Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution to illuminate the cause. As for Point and Shoot, he hopes to present the film in an upcoming Libyan film festival, and have it translated into Arabic.
GALO was present at the Tribeca Film Festival’s world premiere of Point and Shoot, and interviewed both VanDyke and Curry ahead of the film’s win of one of the top jury prizes.
GALO: Marshall, what did you think when Matt approached you with his story and footage? Had you heard about his story on the news?
Marshall Curry: I hadn’t, actually. So when he e-mailed me, it was the first I’d heard of it. But he came to New York and he and Lauren met with my wife and I, who is also my producing partner on the project, and they told us the story and it was unbelievable. It was sort of a no-brainer that it was something I’d like to get involved in.
GALO: There must have been quite a lot of footage. Matt, how much of it had you watched over before reaching out to Marshall? What was the process like of actually piecing together the story from the footage, and how much did you both collaborate on that?
Mattew VanDyke: I don’t know how much of it I really watched. I catalogued some of the footage, but I had probably a couple hundred hours that I hadn’t catalogued at all through the years. There were a lot of tapes; it was quite a bit, which is why I couldn’t do the project myself.
MC: So the way that it worked was, after we agreed to do it and he sent us the footage, we started going through it and we came up with questions based on just viewing the footage and on the long conversation that Matt, Lauren, Elizabeth, and I had before. He had spent a number of hours telling us the story, so we already knew the basic outline. When we watched the footage, it created some more questions. So then, we went down to Baltimore with a cameraman and shot interviews over the course of two days, and then went back to New York and started editing. We edited for nine months or so, and over the course of that, it created even more questions. We did audio interviews with Matt, where we would ask him to just explain in more detail and then — I’m sorry, what Matt?
MV: Well, when I brought you the footage, I stitched together a kind of 50-minute, very rough film that just covered the basic story and samples of what footage was in there, just from the Libya part. It was something I had turned together in about a week for family and friends mostly, and then I was reaching out to directors to try and find the right person for this job.
GALO: Was there anything specific you wanted to include but couldn’t because of time constraints?
MC: Sure, it’s a huge story; there are hundreds of hours of footage. Just our interviews alone were 20 something hours. Matt’s childhood, we probably talked about it for two and a half hours, and we boiled it down to a 60 second music montage. We would love to have made a 10 hour series — and I know there is enough footage and enough drama in the story that we could have done that — but unfortunately, PBS doesn’t run a 10 hour series unless your name is Ken Burns, so we had 80 something minutes. We had to just boil it down to the base. They’ll probably be DVD extras, and I know Matt has been thinking a lot about developing a TV show or putting out some more of the footage.
GALO: Matt, how different do you think your experience would have been as a revolutionary had you not been filming?
MV: Not all that different, actually. I always used the camera as secondary to the gun and to what I was doing. There were times that I just thought about tossing the camera, as you can see in the film, so it wasn’t really much of a distraction and it wasn’t really something that changed the experience much. It was added responsibility — I guess I could have maybe relaxed a little more if I didn’t have to worry about also filming. It didn’t change it too much. Everybody in that war was filming; I just had a better camera than most of the revolutionaries.
GALO: And going off that, can you each explain from your perspectives why it is important that these events were documented?
MV: I find it really important because it inspired other people I know — it inspired Syrians. When they saw the revolution in Libya and they saw the footage on YouTube, they saw how things were done and they were inspired by it. They were inspired by what were basically commercials that rebel units put together to promote themselves and create competition among units — normally a healthy competition, but I think it was really important in order to help pass the torch from Libya to Syria. Without that footage, it would have not had that effect.
GALO: And Marshall?
MC: I’m not a Middle East expert, so I have less to say about that, but I think one of the things that interested me so much in the story was the way that everybody now through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is becoming filmmakers in some ways. They’re dealing with things that I’ve had to deal with in films in the past and Matt dealt with in Libya and Syria and in other places, where we’re all trying to navigate that [mindset of] ‘how can you be present at the same time as you document the thing that you’re in the midst of?’ That was just one of the questions that intrigued me about Matt’s story, and he lived an extreme version of that — most of us aren’t in situations like that.
GALO: Matt, what has the response of your friends from the film, Nuri and the revolutionaries, been like?
MV: Nuri’s been traveling, so he hasn’t seen it — really none of my friends have seen the film yet, except for the ones who came to the premiere, and they really liked it. So yeah, I’ve gotten a good response so far. I want the guys in Libya to see it. There’s a film festival coming up in Libya. I don’t know if it would be possible to get there or not in time, but it’s really important for me for Libyans to see it, for Syrians to see it, and it’s extremely important that it gets translated into Arabic. The opinion of the men I served with is probably the most important opinion of all to me, besides that of my family, of course.
MC: And Robert De Niro. Just kidding, just kidding!
GALO: Matt, in the film you said you wanted a hand in changing or impacting events around you, but in what ways have those events — and the people you met — changed you?
MV: My time in the region on the motorcycle definitely transformed me into the person I am today. It made me tougher, more courageous, but at the same time, after Libya, a bit more cautious. It was a growing up process — the “crash course in manhood.”
MC: You’re more political too, wouldn’t you say?
MV: Sure. I became very ideological after Libya — to the point where it changed the whole course of my life. I’ve been working for the Syrian revolution ever since I got back from Libya, and I’m fully invested in the cause. When I went to Libya, I went mostly to help my friends and also partly ideologically. But I emerged from Libya a revolutionary, and that’s what I’ll continue to do — and so we win or they kill me.
GALO: I really thought the animated scenes were incredible. Would you guys talk a little about what went into making them?
MC: After the war was over, Matt went back to the prison where he was held and was able to take photographs and film video footage, so we knew what that looked like exactly. We got somebody, who I’d worked with on my previous film If a Tree Falls, to build a 3-D animated model of the cell. I thought it would be most powerful to try to give the audience as much as possible a sense of what Matt felt while he was in his cell. So rather than have the point of view of the camera be this outside party looking at Matt, I thought it might be great to have the camera be Matt’s eyes. When he looks down he sees a seat; when he reaches out and touches a wall, he sees hands; and at the point that he would have auditory hallucinations, we illustrate those visually. It was a six month process, probably, to build a 3-D model and all the animations within the model — the hands, Gaddafi, the hallucinations — those were all hand-drawn cell animations, rather than sort of 3-D generated.
GALO: Marshall, the part where Matt takes aim and fires on one of Gaddafi’s men, you insert a childhood home movie as a break in the action. Can you talk about that decision?
MC: At one point, actually, in an earlier cut of the film, Matt said, “you know, I’d realized I’d come a long way from my video game playing days as a teenager in Baltimore.” And so, at one point, I had the line in there, and then I ended up pulling it because just the shots alone brought the movie full circle and just reminded us of where he had come from, and the journey and the transformation that he had gone on.
GALO: Matt, you talked about the influence of Hollywood films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), gaming, adventure books growing up — now that you’ve had your own experiences, how do those influences of your past hold up? You’ve lived it, so how do they compare?
MV: It’s completely different than action movies or anything else. War is not a movie and I’ve never regarded war as some sort of Hollywood movie. I mean, all the romanticism of it is generally false. But I had already seen that when I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, all those notions of the differences between real war and Hollywood war were broken into me at about 2009 in Iraq. But those influences were there, they just weren’t all that prominent. I wasn’t a movie action junkie. And yes, I liked Lawrence of Arabia, but it wasn’t like I’d idolized it — I’d only seen it a few times. I mean, my life has become better than any movie I ever watched, I would say in good ways and also worse in some tragic ways as well. It’s all a mixed bag but capturing it on film, I can’t help but draw connections in my mind, though it’s not something I sit around and dwell on that much.