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.
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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.