by Brian Clarey
Young Ernest Hemingway got his first taste of war when he was just 18. With a high school diploma and a few months as a journalist for the Kansas City Star under his belt, he volunteered as an ambulance driver on the Italian front of World War I, sustaining a shrapnel injury to his knee that earned him the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery.
Later, in 1937, he embedded with fighting troops during the Spanish Civil War as a reporter. By then, his reputation as an author, adventurer and all-around badass had been pretty well cemented.
That might explain why, during World War II, he abandoned the tools of journalism and picked up a gun, leading a group of French resistance fighters before the liberation of Paris in August 1944, in violation of journalistic ethics and reporters’ rules of engagement.
Later he would take his fishing boat out into the Caribbean to look for German submarines.
Hemingway’s story comes to mind within the first 20 minutes of Point and Shoot, the documentary story of Matt VanDyke, a kid from the Baltimore suburbs who ended up fighting in the Libyan revolution that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi.
To hear him tell it a few years later, VanDyke’s story actually makes sense: An adrenaline junkie with a taste for Hollywood-style adventure, he grew up relatively sheltered, living with his mother and grandparents. He had very few friends.
After graduating from Georgetown University with a degree in Middle Eastern studies, he decided to take a “crash course in manhood.” He bought a camera and a motorcycle and went to Africa through Gibraltar, hitting every Arab country, “using the camera to write my own life story,” he says.
He sold his services to the Baltimore Examiner as a correspondent for the Iraq War, where the troops he embedded with showed him how to use heavy weaponry.
This is the point where he adopts an alter ego — Max Hunter, a knife-wielding adventurer roaming through war-torn countries — and befriends Nori, a Libyan who snuck him into Tripoli in 2010.
It’s also the point where the viewer begins to question VanDyke’s sanity. When he leaves Baltimore to join Nori in the fighting after the Arab Spring, our suspicions seem to be confirmed.
VanDyke meticulously filmed every moment of these years, save the six months he spend in a Libyan prison, under the pretense of making a film. But the footage made its way into the hands of Marshall Curry, the award-winning documentarian behind Street Fight, the 2006 Oscar-nominated film about Newark, NJ Mayor Corey Booker’s first run for the post, and Academy Award-winning If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front in 2012.
Point and Shoot has already won Best Documentary at Tribeca this year, owing largely to Curry’s touch.
He culled pieces from years of VanDyke’s footage — VanDyke recorded every mile he traveled from a camera in his motorcycle helmet and took hundreds of hours of footage of his adventures. But more telling is the interview with VanDyke taken years later. With the benefit of hindsight, he tells his story with an air of incredulity, like it happened to someone else. The audience is not the only one questioning the wisdom behind his actions.
In truth, VanDyke is — or was — a little crazy. Even before the post-traumatic stress induced by the war and his imprisonment, he had that obsessive-compulsive handwashing thing and trouble discerning fantasy from reality.
“Everybody tries to create their idealized image of how they want to be seen,” he tells Curry.
Hemingway did the same thing, though he got a slew of books and a Nobel Prize out of it. It is worth noting that things ended badly for Hemingway. VanDyke, who is roughly the same age as the author when he moved to Paris and worked as a correspondent for the Toronto Star, still has a few more acts left in him.
Point and Shoot begins its run at A/perture Cinema on Friday. See aperturecinema.com for tickets and showtimes. Watch the trailer at pointandshootfilm.com.