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'Point and Shoot': Provincetown Review

Point and Shoot Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Provincetown
Matthew VanDyke in "Point and Shoot"

The Bottom Line

A weird and compelling boy's own war story.

Venue

Provincetown Film Festival

Director

Marshall Curry

Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry ("Street Fight," "If a Tree Falls") traces an ordinary man's remarkable quest to reinvent himself as a fearless adventurer.

The thin line separating heroism from narcissism runs like a taut tripwire through Point and Shoot, Marshall Curry's riveting study of self-styled adventurer and rebel freedom fighter Matthew VanDyke. A sheltered Baltimore guy with few friends, VanDyke gave himself "a crash course in manhood" that culminated with him joining the 2011 Libyan Revolution to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. As he demonstrated in his Oscar-nominated eco-terrorism doc, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Curry has a knack for crafting a gripping nonfiction thriller while keeping an incredibly tight focus on his obsessive subject. His latest work won best documentary honors when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year.

"Everybody wants something they can share on Facebook," says VanDyke, reflecting on his experiences and on the ubiquitous use of cell-phone cams even by soldiers in midconflict. "Everybody tries to create their idealized image of who they want to be and how they want to be seen." Those statements pretty much fit an entire generation that was schooled on reality television and applied those lessons to social media, opening an interesting window into the psychology of war in the iPhone age. But VanDyke and his roving camera represent an extreme case.

Curry establishes from the outset that this is VanDyke's story, letting him do the talking and refraining from any external editorializing. We first meet him at 29, looking like any lank-haired, aging skater dude, though with an unsettling intensity as he talks us through his various extreme-ops knives, his body armor and his camera-equipped helmet. The OCD traits are evident long before he starts listing his various phobias and compulsions.

Via VanDyke's own words and home movies, we learn about his comfortable upbringing as the spoiled only child of a middle-class family. He was raised by his mother and grandparents, and he continued to live in their basement through college. He grew up on a diet of Choose Your Own Adventure books, videogames and action movies; Lawrence of Arabia was a particular favorite, eventually steering him to Middle East studies at Georgetown U. One of his most formative influences was the Dutch-Australian adventurer Alby Mangels, whose cheesy World Safari films from the 1970s and '80s are amusingly excerpted.

With a disarming lack of self-irony, VanDyke explains how he set out on his own travel adventure, "using the camera to write my own life story." He shares his excitement at getting his first glimpse of a wild camel, covering some 35,000 miles on his motorcycle across Northern Africa and the Middle East. We watch him set up elaborate vanity shots and then ride through the frame multiple times like a Hollywood stunt player. But being an addictive personality, the adrenaline junkie in him constantly wanted more.

He talked his way into an attachment to the cash-strapped Baltimore Examiner as an unpaid war correspondent. Embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, he found that the soldiers were eager to be filmed and happy to share their training in military weapons. (VanDyke also offers some psychologically dubious theories about how his camera helped control his OCD behavior.) Not shy about self-glorification, he gave himself a new name: "Max Hunter, fearless danger man."

His more reckless expeditions included solo border crossings into Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, where he reconnected with Nuri Funas, a mellow hippie type he had met while traveling in Africa. The bonds VanDyke formed with Funas and fellow bikers in Tripoli he says were stronger than any friendships he ever had in school. So despite having returned home in Dec. 2010 and seeming ready to settle down with his patient girlfriend, Lauren Fischer, the events of the Arab Spring in early 2011 took him back to Libya to join his militant pals.

Following an ambush of the insurgents by Gaddafi loyalists, VanDyke was captured and kept in solitary confinement for six months. But he ignored the urging of Human Rights Watch to return home upon his release, the circumstances of which are somewhat murky. Given that VanDyke's camera was confiscated during this time, Curry effectively uses animation by Joe Posner to depict his imprisonment and the delusional fantasies running through his subject's distressed mind.

The rush, the danger and the insanity of this experience are conveyed through a deft balance of VanDyke's extensive on-the-ground footage and his hindsight commentary while watching images on his computer back in Baltimore. The film offers fascinating insights into an obsessive personality, even if it could have used a little more outside perspective. Fischer's comments shed minimal light on how she felt about VanDyke's decision to see the Libyan conflict through to its end, while his mother is conspicuous in her silence.

But the focus of this suspenseful, densely edited five-year chronicle is VanDyke himself as he reflects on the transition from being an observer to an active participant in war. His thoughts on the horror of armed conflict are nothing new. But the intriguing subtext that emerges suggests he was driven as much, if not more, by his sense of protagonism as by his commitment to a cause. "Am I performing?" he asks during an introspective moment in Libya. "Is the camera a distraction?" Those blurry questions make this an extraordinary and quietly disturbing film.

Production companies: Marshall Curry Productions, POV, ITVS, BBC Storyville

Director-screenwriter: Marshall Curry

Producers: Marshall Curry, Matthew VanDyke, Elizabeth Martin

Executive producer: Vijay Vaidyanathan

Directors of photography: Alan Jacobsen, Matthew VanDyke

Editor: Marshall Curry

Music: James Baxter

Animator: Joe Posner

Sales: The Film Sales Co.

No rating; 82 minutes.