In his mid-20s, UMBC grad Matthew VanDyke was desperate for direction. After receiving a master’s degree from Georgetown, he was back home living with his mother, who handled his grocery shopping and his laundry. Though he’d had a lifelong desire for adventure, he was inactive and rudderless. What he needed was a course correction, a journey that would force him to define his life and, in many respects, to grow up.
He says as much in Point and Shoot, the documentary that traces the Baltimore native’s time in the Middle East and North Africa. Director Marshall Curry (Street Fight, Racing Dreams) intersperses interviews with VanDyke and his girlfriend with VanDyke’s own footage of his travels, first as a motorcycle-riding documentarian, then as a war correspondent embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and finally as a revolutionary fighter during the Libyan uprising that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi (see: “The Accidental Warrior,” Feature, July 10, 2013).
When he set off to foreign lands with a bike and a camera, VanDyke intended to give himself a “crash course in manhood.” Filmmaking was the device; Libya was just another country on a wending 35,000-mile road trip. But the friendships VanDyke developed there would revisit him after he returned to Baltimore and again when peaceful protestors transformed into thuwar fighters and took up arms against Gaddafi in 2011.
As news footage of Libyans being killed in the earliest days of the revolution plays in the film, we hear VanDyke in the background: “I could not imagine sitting at home, watching on TV my friends being killed.” Once a carefree traveler, he assumes the mantle of freedom fighter. Footage of him and his Libyan friends gearing up with guns and retrofitted trucks serves as prelude to his capture. Curry uses animation to illustrate his closet-sized cell in Gaddafi’s prison, a place VanDyke says “literally broke my mind.” Just after he was captured, VanDyke tells Curry, he cut his toenails down with a plastic spoon, fearing regime soldiers would torture him by ripping them off.
Where Point and Shoot truly shines, however, is in its exploration of the war VanDyke wages with himself. A filmmaker first, he’s reluctant to put down the camera after taking up arms. “I’m trying to affect events but, at the same time, document events,” he says. At film’s end, the message is ambiguous. The next time VanDyke takes aim, will it be from behind the lens of a camera or the muzzle of a gun?