The documentary Point and Shoot tells the story of Matthew Vandyke, a white middle-class Baltimore dude who sets out on a pilgrimage through northern Africa and the Middle East. But Vandyke’s quest, which begins as mere off-the-grid tourism, becomes infinitely more serious as he grows acclimated to the northern African culture and as political events unfold.
A loner who played video games and watched action movies throughout his childhood, he felt the need to break out of his insular life and experience more of the world. Lawrence of Arabia was one of his favorite films, and inspired by the sprawling tale of T.E. Lawrence’s World War I-era desert exploits. Vandyke had earned a master’s degree from Georgetown in Middle East studies, so he grabbed a camera, a motorcycle and hit the trails of that region from 2007 to 2009.
Acting as a one-man crew and on-screen talent, he recorded what he saw as well as shots of himself riding his motor bike over rugged terrain. Along with his thirst for adventure, Vandyke has a strong aversion to sugar and is a germaphobe who compulsively washes his hands, which would seem incongruous with roughing it in the desert. Whatsmore, his phobia of hurting others does not lend itself to the situation that he’d eventually become involved in.
“Nouri had transformed from a laid-back hippy to a staunchly militant fighter…”
In all, he rode 35,000 miles through often forbidding territory in northern Africa and the Middle East, where along the way he suffered a broken collarbone from a motorcycle spill, a nasty bite from a wild dog, several arrests and a vicious punch in the face from a police officer, which was captured on camera. Despite the hardships, Vandyke says in his voiceover commentary that those were some of the happiest days of his life. He made a close friend in Libya, a man named Nouri Fonas, and found that he felt at home in that country. He eventually went back to the United States but was destined to return to the region with which he’d become fascinated.
In 2010, with the advent of Arab Spring, a series of anti-government uprisings affecting Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East, rebel forces fought to remove Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Vandyke felt compelled to return to Libya and help his comrades win freedom for their countrymen. He brought his camera along, but it’s clear almost from the start that this visit would be different from the last. His circle of Libyan friends had become uncharacteristically focused on the rebellion. Nouri had transformed from a laid-back hippy to a staunchly militant fighter, and in the course of the film we see Vandyke morph from filmmaker to foot soldier, training for combat and learning to shoot an automatic weapon.
He and his band of friends saw some real action as the conflict intensified, during which, Vandyke’s fellow soldiers develop a fondness for recording wartime selfies. They get him to video-record them firing weapons and tending to other warrior duties. Like Vandyke, we suspect, they want heroic material to upload to Facebook to show the folks at home and to impress girls.
“…a nasty bite from a wild dog, several arrests and a vicious punch in the face from a police officer, which was captured on camera.”
But the whimsical days of taking selfies abruptly ended. Vandyke was arrested by Gaddafi’s forces and imprisoned for what turned out to be a months-long harrowing ordeal.
He was sprung from jail when prisoners broke the lock off his cell, and we learn that he opted to stay in Libya and rejoin the rebellion. You could see this as an act of bravery or call it foolishness. Filmmaker Marshall Curry doesn’t dig very deep to address the question, so we’re left to decide for ourselves. I come down on the side of bravery, but Vandyke also has an undeniable foolhardy streak. Of course, those two qualities are probably the impetus for many a heroic act both on and off the battlefield.
Despite the film’s tendency to shy away from deeper questions of motivation, Curry’s storytelling is well-structured and strangely compelling. I found myself rooting for Vandyke — and thanking my lucky stars that I was not in his place.
Point and Shoot (2014) Directed by Marshall Curry, written by Marshall Curry, starring Matt Sager and Matthew Vandyke.
7 out of 10