The ghost of Ernest Hemingway hovers over Marshall Curry’s new documentary, a profile of amateur filmmaker and revolutionary Matthew VanDyke. Or, rather, the novelist’s name is perhaps the best way to isolate and identify what is going on beneath this formally simple but thematically intricate film. Point and Shoot is a 21st century incarnation of some very old ideas, fervently held conceptions of what it is to be a man and an American on the world stage. The word “profile” isn’t particularly sufficient as a description, either. This is not simply a document, it is an entire life.
In 2006, VanDyke left Baltimore. He took his motorcycle, his video camera and his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder on a trip to Morocco and did not come back for three years. It was to be a “crash course in manhood.” He crisscrossed North Africa, went across into the Near East and eventually rode all the way to Afghanistan. After that he served as an embedded journalist in Iraq, where he encountered modern warfare for the first time. His last significant stop was Qaddafi’s Libya, then officially not an option for American tourists. He snuck in illegally, made a number of close friends, and felt at home. When he finally returned to the United States he was exhausted, if fulfilled.
Along the way he took hours and hours of video of himself, modeled not after the great American adventure novels but rather the travel films of Australian adventurer Alby Mangels. Point and Shoot is a simple combination of original footage and a retrospective interview conducted by Curry, added to the travel videos as voiceover narration. As the videos unfold, woven together by Curry, VanDyke’s deconstruction and re-imagination of his own identity come to the fore. Always alone but always recording himself, he is acting on such a subtle level that it can be hard to see how this performance gradually morphs him. The distillation of this footage is essentially chronological and uncomplicated, but as such illustrates VanDyke’s journey from curiosity to militancy with remarkable ease.
And then the main event. In February 2011 the Libyan Revolution began. VanDyke was home in Maryland, communicating with his friends over the web and learning first hand about the atrocities being committed by Qaddafi’s regime in its struggle to keep a lid on the unrest. In an instant he made the decision to leave Baltimore and go help, however he could. He flew to Egypt, found someone to smuggle him over the border into Libya, and joined the revolution in Benghazi. Again accompanied by his camera, he documented history even as he participated for the first time.
As is probably evident, the greatest strength of this documentary is the unique, compelling and sometimes troubling nature of VanDyke’s extensive travelogue. The virtues of Curry’s direction are subtle, perhaps not easily apparent. The vast majority of the film is footage taken by its subject, arranged in a way that furthers a narrative without getting bogged down in details. It never feels as if Curry is struggling to keep up.
The only time of real stasis, VanDyke’s six months of captivity, is relayed to the audience through a breathtaking animated sequence. Artist Joe Posner, who also worked on Curry’s If a Tree Falls, captures the delirium brought on by solitary confinement with a bewildering terror. The real bugs on the walls and the extravagances of the prisoner’s fantasies are blurred and whirled around, finding a twisting energy even in the film’s only full stop.
On the whole, however, Point and Shoot does not push itself too far. Curry does not ask VanDyke many difficult questions, choosing instead to let his life stand on its own. This also leaves a lot to the audience as well, as far as those big questions about America and masculinity. It has been a long time since Hemingway’s dispatches from death of the Spanish Republic. In light of our two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the adventuring American abroad, fighting for freedom and Democracy, is an idea with an awful lot of baggage. VanDyke’s elision of this with the pursuit of manhood is, to say the least, something worth unpacking.
Yet Curry makes the choice to only touch, very quickly and lightly, on this sort of nuance. Point and Shoot is an exceptionally cut together presentation rather than an interrogation or even an examination of VanDyke’s life on the road to revolution. This has little to do with its emotional resonance or narrative strength, both of which could withstand any social, political or cultural assault. It is simply that by resisting the urge to introduce that sort of confrontation, Curry may have missed a shot at something truly extraordinary.
This review was originally published during the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22, 2014.