Film Review: ‘Point and Shoot’

Point and Shoot Documentary

A naive, adventure-driven videographer with OCD sees himself as the hero of his macho fantasies as he fights alongside rebels in Libya.

Matthew VanDyke was a naive, adventure-driven videographer with OCD when he went to North Africa without a word of Arabic, searching for his manhood. He became buddies with a Libyan guy, and when Libya’s revolution broke out, he picked up a gun alongside his camera and fought with his friend. Gaddafi fell, VanDyke came home triumphant, the end. Never mind that the Libyan civil war still rages — we’ve got an American to celebrate. Just like the U.S.’ deeply flawed foreign policy, Marshall Curry’s “Point and Shoot” sees the world through a lens of American exceptionalism, though such a p.o.v. hasn’t hampered fest recognition.

Tribeca’s feature documentary prize confirms there’s an audience for this story of a low-key guy from Baltimore overcoming psychological handicaps to become his own version of Lawrence of Arabia. A healthy arthouse tour confirms its appeal, which will be furthered by PBS play. Two-time Oscar nominee Curry (“Street Fight,” “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front”) encourages viewers to question the role of the camera, analyze the influence of videogames, and query the meaning of manhood. Yet what about the people VanDyke fights alongside? The Arab world is seen as an exotic destination of filthy toilets, desert landscapes and guerrilla soldiers, where an American with no battlefield training can help win the war against evil. Only the war wasn’t won, and Curry’s decision not to acknowledge this, not even a closing text panel, is deeply problematic.

Most of the docu consists of footage VanDyke shot himself (he’s also one of the producers, though the press notes insist that he had no creative control). Back in Baltimore, he was an aimless mama’s boy even after getting a master’s degree in security studies, with a Middle East focus, at Georgetown. Despite his academic concentration, VanDyke hadn’t actually been to the MENA region (Middle East North Africa), but he imagined what it might be like. Raised on a diet of videogames, he envisioned himself at the center of an adventure series, just like his hero, Australia’s brawny Alby Mangels.

Citing his need for a “crash course in manhood,” VanDyke bought a camera and motorbike and flew to Spain, where he proceeded to head to Morocco; during that first trip, he clocked about 35,000 miles, driving all the way to Afghanistan. His images and framing (thankfully) improved, and he found that filming his activities helped control his OCD, which manifested itself via frequent hand washing, fear of spilled sugar and an aversion to trash cans. His commentary is largely that of an ingenuous, sheltered novice thrilled to see himself as the adventurer of his fantasies: He even temporarily called himself Max Hunter, a more fitting moniker for the man he felt he’d become. Clearly this is a guy who gets more of his info from USA Today than from Foreign Policy.

Judging from the included footage, VanDyke barely spoke with any locals, but he does pal around with American G.I.s and gets a brief gig as an embedded journalist in Iraq, for the Baltimore Examiner (the docu fails to mention that the paper folded soon after VanDyke filed one story). In Libya, he met Nuri Funas, a charismatic, hippie-like figure, and the two traveled about together. In 2010, VanDyke returned to Baltimore, to the relief of his g.f., Lauren Fischer.

Then, in February 2011, Libya descended into chaos and VanDyke felt the urge to help his friend. Plus, as he puts it, the Arab Spring challenged his very notion of manhood. On the evidence here, the guy is nothing if not a narcissist, seeing global conflict through the prism of his own insecurities. No longer an eyewitness to war but an active participant, in the coming months he fights alongside Nuri and the rebels until he’s captured by Gaddafi’s forces and tossed into solitary for 5½ months.

The horrific experience, visualized through Joe Posner’s moody p.o.v. animation, became an international cause celebre until rebels freed the prisoners, and a visibly traumatized VanDyke returned to his fighting companions with added street cred. Around this point, he begins verbalizing an awareness of the camera’s potency for him and those around him: The rebels, just like the American soldiers earlier, perform for the camera, delighted to feel like the heroes of their own videogames. VanDyke even hands the camera to a companion so he can be filmed killing a sniper — he misses his target, but at least the world sees he’s not a wimp.

VanDyke never acknowledges that his lack of training, not to mention his inability to speak Arabic, might be a liability to the friends he’s fighting alongside. More troublingly, “Point and Shoot” makes it seem as if VanDyke’s stint as a rebel fighter helped put Libya on the path to freedom, when actually the country is one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Curry’s interest is in obsession, not Libya, yet surely a corrective is needed, and dressing up a nation’s collapse as if it were an American triumph smacks of the same willful delusion as George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished.”

Visuals run the gamut from rough-and-tumble, in Van Dyke’s early footage, to a skilled understanding of the medium, evident in the videographer’s lensing and Curry’s interview material. Editing is a standout, and Curry’s adept management and packaging of a wealth of material always impresses. Yet the director’s desire to avoid criticizing his subject opens up far more cans of worms than he seems to realize.

Film Review: 'Point and Shoot'

Reviewed at Abu Dhabi Film Festival (competing), Nov. 1, 2014. (Also in Tribeca Film Festival — competing; Hot Docs, Stockholm, CPH:DOX film festivals.) Running time: 83 MIN.

Production

(Documentary) An Orchard release of a Marshall Curry Prods. presentation of a Marshall Curry Prods., American Documentary (POV), Independent Television Service production, with funding provided by the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, in association with Matthew VanDyke, BBC/Storyville. (International sales: Ro*Co Films, Sausalito, Calif.) Produced by Curry, Elizabeth Martin, Matthew VanDyke. Executive producers, Vijay Vaidyanathan, Simon Kilmurry, Nick Fraser, Kate Townsend, Sally Jo Fifer. Co-executive producer, Cynthia Lopez.  

Crew

Directed, written, edited by Marshall Curry. Camera (color), Matthew VanDyke, Alan Jacobsen; music, James Baxter, the National; sound, Christopher Barnett, Al Nelson; animation, Joe Posner;  associate producer, Daniel Koehler.

With

Matthew VanDyke, Lauren Fischer, Nuri Funas, Ali Mohamed Zwi.

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  1. Scott says:

    I was unable to make it through the film. This narcissistic wanker comes off as the guy in high school who, no matter what you’ve accomplished, he’s done it too, and better than you. The Libyans can have him, and his equally “aren’t I just uber hip” girlfriend. No wonder other countries hate us!

  2. K. Taylor says:

    I usually find POV fascinating. I could barely make it through this one, but once started I had to see the outcome. Matthew VanDyke is still a man-child at 36, if this documentary is any indication of his current level of maturity. What a fool. It is sad that Bush lied to us all and what has ensued in the following years is our never-ending involvement in futile war & the total upheaval in the Middle-East. The average person on the street does not support this or have control over it, so can not bear the guilt of it. How anyone can view Mr. VanDyke’s actions as a supposed example of American exceptionalism is hilarious. It is one man’s (boy’s) salute to his own ego or lack thereof. If you do not think America is exceptional in the history of the world, than you had better start reading world history and American history (and I do not mean revisionist history, but actual history).

  3. macsimillian says:

    Loved the article. Watching it now– but could not finish if others did see what I am, it was so irritating. Agree with every point. Fave is him ruminating on his escape from prison: how he had now experienced living under a brutal dictator so he decides to fight. I can’t leave enough question-marks after each thought, about our American exceptionalism

    • macsimillian says:

      And . . . Not only is the war still not over, but most of their “fighting” has zero target/enemy, they’re just shooting randomly (& destroying EVERYTHING in sight). So he not only didn’t magically effect change with his American touch, but his motivation is simple: of course we all love being the hero to your group of friends, they all adore their American (he’s always riding in the front of every car – he even says “they spilled sugar in MY car” — they pick him to shoot the sniper — he is their hero). It’s human nature, so being American makes it is very tempting to feel exceptional.

  4. C Castle says:

    Did you even watch the film? He was released from prison due to US government intervention. He learned to shoot from our “US” troops. Then when advised to go home, Max Hunter, our protagonist/antogonist shows his true narcissism by being a “man” and staying to help his friends in Libya.

    I agree with your review except one big point. I felt Curry did a good job of portraying Max as both someone trying to find himself and a lonely confused lunatic. The take away from this film is if you need to find yourself “don’t try this at home!”

    Now Max should man up and go to Afghanistan. Maybe he can put an “end” to that war too?

    This film should have been called “Into the Wild Part II: Spoiled millennial wandering about off his meds.”

    • JB says:

      What are you talking about C Castle? Did you even watch the film? He escaped from prison. The US government didn’t even know he was in that prison! And he is currently working in Iraq with US veterans helping Iraqi Christians to fight against ISIS. You don’t know what you’re talking about with these ridiculous comments.

  5. Prize says:

    It’s interesting to note that it won Best Documentary prize at Tribeca while there was an obvious conflict of interest. The executive producer N Fraser was the president of the jury.

  6. Cynthia says:

    This is a story of a personal journey, not a story about the conflict in Libya. The aithor missed the point of this movie entirely.

  7. IT 2 IT says:

    TAVISTOCK mind control FAKE media
    really moving on their beloved ‘VETs are with — – -THEM!’ narrative.

    OPEN globalist MAFIA USURPATION of POST America’s movin’ too.

    So’s the RED CHINA handover op!

  8. John Shea says:

    Heaven forbid that you should celebrate an American, Mr. Weissberg!

    And the famous ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner on the aircraft carrier President Bush visited does not mean what you and many others think.

    • YYYTR says:

      May I quote Hilary Clinton: we came, we saw, he died!!! HAHAHAHA!!!!

      Maybe this poor naive fool should stop following liberals.

      • Gavin says:

        Guys I don’t really get what the problem is. No claim that he stopped the war. He felt personally invested because he, a loner, felt connected to somebody who befriended him and wanted to help. The fact that the war wasn’t won is completely irrelevant, unless you want to discount the humanity inherent in every struggle whether it is successful or not. Wtf people. You’re missing the forest for the trees

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