This year’s winner of Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival was Point and Shoot, a fascinating story about Matthew VanDyke, an American adventure junkie whose travels across the Middle East eventually led to his joining the Libyan revolution. Camera in one hand, a gun in the other, VanDyke found himself in an odd position – a chronicler as well as a participant. (And for one very disturbing half-year, he was also a Libyan prisoner of war, confined to a dank, solitary cell.) After returning from Libya, VanDyke decided to travel to Syria and join the resistance there. To put together a film in his absence, he recruited Marshall Curry, one of America’s foremost documentarians. (Curry has been nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar twice – for the 2006 film Street Fight, which chronicled the contentious 2002 Newark mayor’s race, featuring a then-unknown named Cory Booker; and for 2011’s If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, about the radical environmentalist group.)
The resulting film wound up being about more than just VanDyke’s experiences in Libya. Utilizing footage shot both during the revolution and during his earlier travels, it’s as much a coming-of-age story and an exploration on the ever-evolving nature of filmmaking as it is a riveting tale of war and conflict. As such, it also fits in with Curry’s other works – which tackle seemingly simple subjects that transform over the course of a film into meditations on broader cultural themes. Both Curry and VanDyke sat down with us recently to discuss their acclaimed new film, the role of the filmmaker-activist, and what goes into finding a good documentary subject.
Matthew, you were shooting constantly during your travels in the Middle East and the revolution in Libya. This film had originally started as a kind of travelogue. At what point did the nature of how you envisioned what you were shooting change?
VanDyke: Up until the point that I actually went to Libya, the intent was to shoot a motorcycle adventure film. So my core audience was going to be motorcycle fans and adventure enthusiasts. I was inspired by the Australian filmmaker Alby Mangels. So I would set up shots with motorcycle stuff — specific things of interest to that audience. That’s also where I got into pushing limits – where just Africa and the Middle East wasn’t enough anymore, now I had to go to Iraq, now I had to go to Afghanistan. But when I went to Libya, that was something that was personal, serious, more of a mission. The camera got thrown in the bag as an afterthought, cause I thought I might do a personal video diary. So, when I was in Libya, this wasn’t supposed to be a part of this film, or even a project. I didn’t even know if I’d survive that mission. These two separate intentions eventually merged into one film.
During the fighting in Libya, there are those amazing moments where you’ve got both the gun and the camera and you’re struggling with trying both to be a fighter and to document what’s happening. That split identity I found fascinating. A lot of people at that point would’ve put down the camera. Why didn’t you?
VanDyke: You see in the film — and I’m glad this was included — where I have this discussion with Nouri [Van Dyke’s close friend and fellow revolutionary] and I was ready to shoot the camera and throw it away. But as you see in the film, Nouri kept telling me that I had to keep filming, because I was one of the people that could document what they were doing at the same time that they were doing it. But the nature of a camera in one hand and a gun in the other is something that sort of occurred throughout the Arab Spring. In Libya, as you see in the footage, guys are standing in the middle of battle with their cell-phone cameras. I just happened to have a better camera than theirs. This is really the way wars will be fought from now on.
Marshall Curry: And I think it’s actually even more than wars, it’s how life will be lived now. I feel like people with their camera phones and Twitter and Facebook, this kind of question like, How can I be present and also document my presence, or document what I’m doing? is something that’s always on my mind, even when I’m not working as a filmmaker.
This was always a dilemma in documentaries: At what point do I stop being an observer and step in? But now it’s a dilemma for everyone: I have a camera in my pocket, so maybe I should be shooting this?
Curry: And I think Matt’s story is sort of an extreme version of that. He’s in the most intense situation that you could be in and still juggling the camera issue. And for the rest of us, it’s kind of a less extreme juggling of exactly the same question. I find often I’m wandering around the park with my kids and I notice something and I think, Oh, I could come up with a clever Facebook post about that. It’s like, Wait a minute, that’s not what I should be thinking. I should be present in the moment with my kids. And the grotesque New York version of that is when somebody falls on a railroad track in front of a train and somebody takes a picture of it instead of reaching to pick him up.
VanDyke: I don’t think that generally documentarians or journalists should participate in any way. They need to keep a clear line between the two. But the space I inhabit is sort of unique because in this case, I was a fighter with a camera, like many other fighters. Even when I went to Syria, where I made my first film, Not Anymore: Story of a Revolution, I was an activist filmmaker who went to make a film to help a cause where my level of participation was still more open and different than just an observer.
Marshall, something like that happened to you in Street Fight, where you started to make a film documenting a Newark mayoral race between then-newcomer Cory Booker and incumbent mayor Sharpe James. But James’s supporters tried to take your camera away and manhandled you, and suddenly that became part of the story.
Curry: When I was shooting Street Fight, and honestly for months of editing, I thought it would be straight, verite. Transparent filmmaker: Never see them, never hear from them. Like The War Room or one of these movies. But the main thing that got me to change were those scenes where Sharpe James or his goons come over and they start talking to me, and you hear my quivering voice on the other side. You watch a scene like that and you wonder, Who’s this guy who’s holding the camera?
Matt, I’m trying to imagine what it must be like to go through all this excruciating shit, and then to see it all over again onscreen. You lost some of your closest friends. You were in solitary confinement in a Libyan prison for months. Do you watch this movie? If you do, what goes through your mind?
VanDyke: People always assume I must have issues after solitary, but I don’t actually. Partly it’s because I don’t feel like a victim. I deserved to be in prison for what I’d done: I’d gone to overthrow a government, and I got caught. Thankfully I wasn’t executed, so it’s not like I’m a victim. I went right back to the frontline after escaping prison. And also it was a time of self-reflection and self-thought. I think I emerged from prison much better as a person than I was when I went in, actually. So when I watch it, it’s not disturbing to me. Parts of it are a little embarrassing, I suppose. Certain aspects of things that I went through to me aren’t nearly as significant as they were to Marshall. But I can’t complain too much. I’m a guy who sees his face on a big screen in a theater. I can only bitch so much. It’s a weird experience.
Are you planning on going back to Syria?
VanDyke: Yeah. I’ve been trying to set up a women’s media center for about a year, so depending on the progress of that project I might be going soon for that. It’s not a place that I go without a reason now. When I was making my film in Syria, the Assad regime branded me a terrorist and broadcast on state television photos and videos of me fighting in Libya. So now I’m wanted in Syria. It’s not a place that I would go without a concrete mission and purpose, but I was just in Turkey last month, helping Syrian activists with their video work. So whatever they need, I’ll do.
Are you going to show the film in Libya?
VanDyke: There’s a film festival in Benghazi that asked me for the film just the other day, so hopefully we can work out to get the film over there in time for that, with the subtitles, and also in Syria. But yeah, I need a Libyan audience to see it. It’s my second home. I know through my Facebook page they’re incredibly supportive of the whole thing, at least the ones who like my side — not the Qaddafi version.
What happens to people who are on the other side?
VanDyke: They send me insults and threats and so on. You know, they picked the losing side, but I don’t want any bitterness. It’s a civil war. It’s hard for people to mend fences after that happens. I wish them the best, too, even the other side now. Whatever I can do to help them with that, I’ll do. Anything Libya ever needs, I’ll get on a plane and go.
Marshall, your films are all very different in subject matter, but I always notice this progression from the minute to, shall we say, the epic? It was most resounding in this one, but even Street Fight starts off as this little mayoral race and becomes something much broader. Is that something you look for?
Curry: When I’m trying to decide on a project, I look for three things. I’m looking for a charismatic character – somebody who you just want to look at and listen to and whom the camera likes. I’m also looking for a narrative arc: Something is going to happen, and there will be a question that will make you wonder what happens at the end. With Street Fight, there’s obviously an election: Who’s gonna win? With Racing Dreams, the kids were all super charismatic, and the structure is: “Who’s gonna win this series?” With If a Tree Falls, you’ve got a pending trial where somebody might actually go to jail for the rest of their life as a terrorist.
The third thing that I look for, though, is some larger issues that interest me. Usually, if it can be two or more issues, even better. Because after a certain point, you have to switch things up. At minute 30 or 40, people get where you’re going, so you want to add something new. So Street Fight, it’s corruption in politics, but then it also becomes about racial authenticity. With Racing Dreams, it’s about competition, but it’s also about families and about what it’s like to be 11 and 12 and have a dream, and figure out what romance feels like for the first time. And with If a Tree Falls, it’s how do we define terrorism? And what should you do when you care about something? To me, the best projects are the ones where you have a pretty good idea of what the spine of it’s gonna be, but then all sorts of things happen that you could’ve never predicted, and those are the magic moments of the films.
Matt talked about the “feedback” he’s gotten from the Libyans on the other side … what kind of blowback have you gotten from some of these films? What happened with Sharpe James and his followers when Street Fight came out?
Curry: They were very critical of it, obviously. It premiered here at Tribeca, so pretty quickly word got back to Newark about what was going on and Sharpe James attacked it. When it came out, there was a mailing that went out around Newark that said, “Would you trust a Nazi to make a film about the Holocaust? Would you trust a Mexican to make a film about the Alamo?” Which was kind of wild … not only racist, but also, yes, actually, I would be interested in hearing the Mexican view on the Alamo. And yeah, right before it was on PBS, we moved our kid’s crib away from the window, just wondering if somebody was gonna come by and toss a rock through. But in the end, nothing happened. A couple years later though, when the next election happened, I was over in Newark shooting some follow-up stuff that I was gonna put on a DVD, and I bumped into Sharpe James. That was awkward. He hates Cory Booker and he feels similarly towards me.
Because you follow these charismatic people, I imagine there’s also a life beyond the end of the documentary. Do you still keep in touch with Cory Booker?
Curry: Yeah, it is weird because when you work as long as you do on these projects, you create relationships with them. So Cory and I, it’s not like we go out to dinner or text each other, but I’ve seen him a number of times and I know people in his campaign and follow what’s going on. Sometimes it’s a little awkward, though, because if he does something people don’t like, I start getting emails as if I’m his spokesman or something, to answer for every decision that he makes. And I’m like, “Hey, he’s just a guy in a movie I made!”