Matthew VanDyke has a producer credit and will share in the profits, if any, but he can barely stand the opening scene of Point and Shoot, a film documenting his metamorphosis from mollycoddled man-boy to combat-hardened freedom fighter.
But Marshall Curry, the director of the movie which opens nationwide following Friday’s New York premiere, loves the way VanDyke is introduced.
And therein lies a tale of pointing and shooting.
“Certainly there’s been some drama—it hasn’t been easy,” VanDyke tells me. “I don’t like the beginning because I think it’s a poor introduction to me…It makes me kind of cringe.”
Curry, on the other hand, argues: “He thinks the beginning sets him up as non-serious, but to me it’s incredibly riveting to see this person, to hear him talking, and to have him showing his weapons. It makes the audience ask, ‘Who is this person?’”
The scene in question—one of several areas of difference between filmmaker and subject, an uneasy collaboration that prompted hours of fraught conversation and pages and pages of emails—shows VanDyke displaying knives, body armor, and a special helmet he plans to take on a motorcycle adventure through Afghanistan and Iran.
It’s circa 2008 and VanDyke, then a whippet-thin 29-year-old with stringy blond hair, stares unnervingly into the camera with ice-blue eyes and speaks in an unsettling monotone as he brandishes a Smith and Wesson flip-blade with a partially serrated edge; a second, longer knife that he keeps holstered on his shin—good for stabbing, he says—and then slowly rotates 360 degrees to show off his bullet-proof vest.
The effect is very Taxi Driver—Travis Bickle weaponizing himself in front of the mirror and muttering “You talkin’ to me?”
In the end, Curry and VanDyke are both right. The opening of Point and Shoot is indeed spellbinding, and we do want to know more about this guy; yet it also provokes the inescapable thought that VanDyke is a certifiable head-case, and not necessarily a harmless one—a first impression that ultimately evaporates as we get to know him better.
In a film that begins as a chronicle of VanDyke’s “crash course in manhood,” as he frames it onscreen—and also addresses such compelling issues as the impact of the camera on human behavior and identity—we learn that he’s not only smart and self-aware, but also likable and even admirable in his willingness to fight his fears (notably an obsessive-compulsive disorder that has him repetitively washing his hands and coping with a terror of sugar) to put himself in harm’s way for an honorable cause.
The cause that VanDyke embraces, body and soul, blood and guts, is the 2011 revolution in Libya that ultimately toppled the brutal dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. The film’s title refers to VanDyke’s bizarre status as a gun-toting rebel—an American, at that—who also wielded a video camera to record the perils and heroics of combat. He was, in other words, a hybrid journalist-warrior.
Curry whittled down VanDyke’s nearly 200 hours of footage—covering home movies from his boyhood, his two motorcycle journeys, his befriending of U.S. soldiers (who act out for his camera) and his months of combat in Libya—to 83 compelling minutes. At different points in the movie, VanDyke is shown getting cold-cocked in the face by an Afghan police officer, fleeing an angry mob, firing automatic weapons with American troops, sustaining a broken collarbone in a motorcycle crash, and dodging bullets with his comrades in the Libyan opposition. Also, perhaps equally terrifying, he’s shown frantically brushing grains of sugar off his trousers.
Before his adventure had ended, VanDyke would spend nearly six months in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war in Gaddafi’s jails; on being released, instead of packing it in, he’d return to the battlefield, never mind the anguished worries of his mother and girlfriend back home in Baltimore.
“Their story was just incredibly gripping and it also raised tons of questions for us,” Curry says, recalling his and his wife/producer Elizabeth Martin’s first meeting with VanDyke and his longtime companion, Lauren Fischer, in their Brooklyn office two years ago. “He had recently returned from Libya and had this footage that he thought would make an interesting documentary. After they left, we couldn’t stop talking about it.”
VanDyke—who presents himself as “a revolutionary” and a filmmaker as well as a credentialed Middle East security expert (having received a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service)—approached the Oscar-nominated Curry, whose previous films include the much-lauded Street Fight (about New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s first mayoral campaign in Newark), after pitching his project to several other Academy Award contenders.
“When I returned with the footage, it was going to be a film about my own military service,” VanDyke says, “but I needed for people to take it seriously, otherwise it would look like a campaign commercial if I was the director. I wouldn’t have made it look that way, but people would have been suspicious of it. So I decided to look for a director.”
Curry was intrigued and, unlike the other filmmakers VanDyke consulted, he had time to take on a major project. VanDyke initially suggested that they co-direct the movie; Curry said no, and insisted on creative control and final say on everything from editing decisions to distribution strategy. Ultimately they entered into an agreement that called for Curry to pay VanDyke a licensing fee for the footage, and gave the director control of the copyright.
“From the start it was a collaborative effort,” VanDyke says. “He took my advice on some things and didn’t on a few others. I shot pretty much the whole film and produced it. Basically I consider it my film as well as his, just because he’s the director. I sought him out and brought him on the project. One of Marshall’s conditions is he wanted creative control, so I went along with that. But essentially I hired him, even though that’s not how we arranged it contractually.”
VanDyke adds that he has $100,000 of his own money in the movie—presumably from the expenses he incurred trekking through North Africa, Iran, Afghanistan, and Libya over a six-year period.
“I don’t want to pick a fight with him,” Curry says, adding that VanDyke’s travel expenses “are not relevant” to the film’s budget. He noted that he and his wife raised nearly $500,000 from various funders, and paid not only to license VanDyke’s footage but also for such necessary items as errors and omissions insurance.
That being said, “Matt totally deserves a producer credit for all the work of shooting the footage that makes up much of the film,” Curry adds. “He spent years doing everything producers deal with, from logistics to flying himself places, and he’s a cinematographer as well.”
VanDyke also experienced the reality of having friends and comrades die, not only in Libya but, more recently, at the hands of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. American photojournalist James Foley was a pal. And VanDyke and Fischer had dinner with war correspondent Steven Sotloff mere weeks before he was kidnapped.
“Every time I turn around one of my friends is either being beheaded by ISIS or appearing in an ISIS propaganda video. It’s tough to see this constantly on TV,” says VanDyke, who has spent the past two years working with a dwindling cadre of fighters in what he calls “the moderate Syrian opposition,” and promoting a documentary about the civil war against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, which he directed by himself and titled Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution!.
“There are not enough men left in the moderate opposition to defeat Assad,” he laments, adding that he hopes his film will help the rebels gain international support. “The best men in the revolution have already died, and it has spiraled down to a lot of infighting.”
Three years after Gaddafi’s departure, the situation in Libya is almost as bad. Chaos and violence reign in Tripoli and beyond, leading one to wonder if VanDyke’s hardships were worth it.
“I’m still glad Gaddafi’s gone,” he says. “I wish the Libyans could get it together a little more. But democracy is not a panacea. It’s a path.” He adds: “I never think security should trump liberty. If the system has to be broken and it takes time to put it back together to build a functional democratic system, that’s just the way it is. Following the American Revolution, it wasn’t clear that the union would survive either, and eventually it didn’t and it ended up in a civil war. So if Libya goes through a civil war, it’s actually historically common.”
Meanwhile, the outcome of VanDyke’s crash course in manhood is left an open question in Point and Shoot. “I think I was fairly successful,” he says. “I’m pleased with my personal development. I’m certainly able to do things and handle things much more confidently and achieve much more. Some aspects of the OCD have gotten worse, and some have gotten better. As of about a month ago, I’m actually able to consume sugar.”