A conversation about Libyan and Syrian hospitality, fighting and filmmaking for a cause, and the road to revolution.
Marshall Curry’s Point and Shoot is an intriguing documentary centred on Matthew VanDyke, a twenty-something traveller who set off to motorcycle around the Arab World and ended up filibustering in Libya during the revolution to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. He was subsequently captured and kept in solitary confinement by Gaddafi forces, and became a well-known American voice on the conflict. Curry assembles the footage that VanDyke shot, and showcases a particularly complex individual. I talked to VanDyke about the documentary, his Syria-focused short film Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, and his eventful travels.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Funnily enough, we were in North Africa around about the same time . I was in Morocco, Western Sahara, and Mauritania.
MATTHEW VANDYKE: It’s a really interesting area.
BG: What attracted you to that part of the world in the first place?
MV: I had done my Masters degree from Georgetown University, and I wanted to see the region, so I tried to shoot an Alby Mangels-style adventure film. I thought I’d go to a region that I knew, and tried to hit every Arab country. I went as far south as Mauritania and that’s what led me to spend quite a bit of time in West Africa.
BG: How different was it to what you had studied?
MV: Very different. I had studied politics, terrorism analysis, things like that. Culturally, I had very little knowledge. I didn’t know how to use a squat toilet. It was quite an adjustment.
BG: Did you experience the famous hospitality?
MV: Yes, the hospitality is one of the high points of the region. I spent time in people’s houses, which helped me get a lot of contacts across the region. And the hospitality in Libya was one of the things that allowed me to make such good friends that I eventually I went back there to fight.
BG: Given what has happened since in that part of the world with the Arab Spring, do you think your footage captures a more innocent time or is there a naivety to it?
MV: What the footage captured is a range of personal experiences and a personal transformation adventure that is fairly timeless. In addition, it’s interesting to people to see what life was like before the revolutions began. It really hasn’t changed all that much in a lot of ways post-revolution.
BG: I was in Syria six months before the revolution started there, and I remember the hospitality there being amazing.
MV: Yeah, definitely the hospitality and the way people treat you is different from what you’d experience in a lot of other countries.
BG: Were you conscious when you set out that that area had been heavily stereotyped in the Western media and that you were experiencing something different to that?
MV: Sure, my academic expertise is in that region. I had a good understanding of it before I went. It was not having yet experienced it myself that was the issue at the time. I had a good sense of what I was getting into in some ways, and not in others.
BG: Why out of all of the countries you went, what struck you about Libya?
MV: I had spent about a month and a half there in the same place with the same people, and they became really good friends and I made close connections. There were other motorcyclists there, people with similar interests to me—we really clicked.
BG: What were your initial impressions under Gaddafi?
MV: That people were scared to talk about certain things. People talked in hushed tones about certain subjects. Other subjects, people wouldn’t talk about at all. The guy I was staying with, who got me in the country, he was always paranoid about who I was associating with and where I was going. They would pull him in for questioning about me. I had to be more careful and it quickly became apparent that something wasn’t right in that country.
BG: Was it a surprise that the Arab Spring progressed to Libya?
MV: At the time I wasn’t sure that it would, but in hindsight, it’s not surprising. It was going to move like dominoes through the region, which fortunately it did.
BG: The film charts your reasoning for going back to Libya to fight. Do you think in hindsight, knowing what you know now, you would have made the same decision?
MV: I would have made all the same decisions, maybe some different things tactically that would have avoided being captured, but if I knew that going would result in imprisonment and everything again, I’d still do it again. In a second.
BG: What do you think your purpose was in going to Libya?
MV: To fight. They needed every man at that time they could get to go to the frontline. There were really only a few hundred of us in the East at that time, fighting in the war. This was before NATO got involved when I got captured. A lot of guys were sitting in Benghazi waiting, because they thought Gaddafi would wipe us out and they wanted to join the fight. They needed everybody to slow down Gaddafi’s forces until they could put together some semblance of a rebel army. I did what had to be done. After escaping prison, I went back to the frontline and kept doing what had to be done.
BG: How did Marshall Curry come aboard in terms of assembling your material?
MV: I returned from Libya and I decided that it should be a film, but it’s difficult to make a film about your own military service. I wanted to work with another director. I just went and looked at who has been nominated for Academy Awards in recent years. I contacted them, talked to different directors, and decided on Marshall.
BG: What type of viewpoint did he bring to the documentary?
MV: It was a collaboration between the two of us. He had final say on things but we went back and forth on stuff. He liked the story, he was also interested in the aspect of me being a filmmaker at the same time as doing these things. That was the angle that really interested him.
BG: It’s the classic dichotomy, whether you document or participate in these situations, and you ended up doing both. Was it a fine balancing act? Do you find yourself leaning one way or the other with your experience?
MV: I’m a fighter and a revolutionary at heart. Even when I went to Syria and made my film Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, I did it for the cause. I didn’t do it to be a filmmaker. I will pick up the camera when I think it will help the cause, and I will put it down when I think it has served its purposes. It’s one more tool in the toolbox of revolution.
BG: Had Marshall Curry been over to that part of the world before?
MV: No he hadn’t.
BG: Do you think that might affect the film’s viewpoint? Did you find yourself arguing over the way certain footage may be presented based on cultural understandings?
MV: Sure. He made decisions I wouldn’t have made in some cases. We had disagreements, but that’s what I signed up for. People liked the film, and it won best documentary at Tribeca, and we’re doing okay with it. With my insight as a director, having lived it, having spent time in the region, there are things that I would have liked to have included that didn’t make it in, or things that I thought didn’t need to be in there, or things that received too much emphasis. That’s the agreement I made.
BG: Do you find it strange being a subject of a film?
MV: It certainly is strange. It’s very strange seeing one’s face on a movie screen; you can imagine someone having a picture taken of themselves and not liking the picture. Imagine watching 82 minutes and seeing many times things that you are embarrassed about. Also, Marshall and I are award-winning filmmakers, so we have different viewpoints of things that should be in the film, and we both have an artistic vision. It’s a struggle, but that’s part of the working relationship. Being the subject of my motorcycle films was perfectly fine, but being a subject of a film about my military service where people take it credibly, I had to take a step back and give final creative control to somebody else.
BG: You also have no control over how somebody might read your motives and your actions.
MV: That’s something I’ve explained in countless interviews and in my own writing. In the film, I think my motivations could have been explained better, but there’s plenty out there for people to read, my writings on the subject, and things like that.
BG: A criticism of the Western media coverage of the Arab Spring was how depersonalised it was in terms of its participants, unless they were Western victims. Does the documentary change this, or is this simply part of the same discourse?
MV: I think that the film addresses that reality. I’ve always viewed my story as a way to inform people in the West about the conflict. The reason the media tends to pay attention when a Westerner is wounded or killed in one of these conflicts is because that’s what gets people in the West to pay attention. If having an American involved at least gets people to take a moment and think about Libya, or Syria, or any other issue… that’s a way for people to get their medicine, like the candy-coating they need to swallow the bitter pill of international affairs. In the film, a central character is my friend Nuri [Funas], whom I had known for more than four years before the war started, and who was the driver of the jeep which I was a gunner on. I think viewers get a good understanding of Libyans. That was important for me, and I’m certain that people will walk away from the film with a much better opinion of Libyans than they had when they walked into the theatre.
BG: Could Point and Shoot have been about a Libyan? You talk in the film about how the Libyan conflict was arguably the most videoed conflict with all of the smart phones. Could it have worked with a Libyan protagonist?
MV: Point and Shoot is a much more complex film than being just about the Libyan revolution. At least half the film is about my character development, the things that led to my decision to go, the years on the motorcycle, my obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s less of a historical document of the Libyan civil war. There are other films out there that are about that. And those are important. I would hope my film isn’t just about teaching people about Libya and the revolution; it’s about showing that someone with obsessive compulsive disorder can overcome challenges, and that if you have hopes and dreams, you can do it and achieve it too. It’s about progression and becoming a better person. There are a lot of messages audiences have taken away from it. It’s broader than a Discovery or History Channel-style documentary about war.
BG: In Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, your central characters are two Syrians?
MV: Right. I was not in the film at all; you only hear my voice asking a few questions for context. I focused on two Syrians. I certainly used my reputation and my media presence as someone who had fought in these conflicts to promote the film, and through this I found that a lot of Americans and Westerners at least get a chance, because the angle of me having fought in Libya was something that attracted media attention. CNN had me on to talk about the film before I had even made it. It was important for me to have Syrians tell the story, in English without subtitles, because subtitles make people seem foreign to a Western audience. It was carefully done and achieved the purpose it was intended to achieve. I just screened the film at the State Department on Friday. It has been shown in over 20 countries. I think it has changed a lot of people’s view about Syria and the revolution.
BG: These conflicts are extremely complex, in the way they’ve splintered and mutated over time. Are we getting enough of a sense of the complexity through media representations?
MV: Certainly not. A lot of people think Isis, for example, is part of the Revolution. Isis is a parasite of the revolution. Isis sits backs and lets revolutionaries fight against the Assad regime and when they capture the territory, Isis stabs them in the back and takes the territory from them. Syrian rebels are actually fighting against Isis and the regime at the same time. You ask a person on the street in America or Europe, and they’ll say Isis is part of the revolution. The media is not adequately capturing the complexity of this. But at the heart of all of these stories, the people who actually are the revolutionaries, have the same hopes, dreams, aspirations as everybody else. They want freedom, liberty, and to be in charge of their own destiny.
BG: Has the film been shown in Libya?
MV: It hasn’t yet. But it will. There was talk about doing it in a festival in Libya, but it didn’t pan out. They don’t really have that many movie theatres in Libya. It’s different culturally. It’s important to me that Libyans to see it, and I think they’ll enjoy it and be quite proud of how they’re represented, and how the revolution is represented.
BG: You’ve talked about how the films assist with the revolution and assist in these regime changes. Do you feel responsibility for offering solutions after the events?
MV: Sure, I believe I do offer solutions. Through my writing and my interviews, and through op-eds, I try to offer solutions. More importantly, I try to implement solutions on the ground, and everything I do, I try to have a tangible effect on the ground. And the goal with the Syrian film is to change public opinion on the revolution and give politicians enough political cover to make decisions in the interest of the revolution. The film is used for fundraisers, to raise money for humanitarian relief for Syria. I’m trying to get a screening on Capitol Hill. That’s the whole purpose of the film. War by other means.
BG: What have got planned next? Will you be making more films in the region?
MV: No I don’t think I will. The revolution in Syria doesn’t need more films. I’m doing other things, but for the future, I’ve got all of this motorcycle footage. The difficulty is balancing this time-wise with my work for the revolution. I sat on the footage for a few years after Libya, because I thought it was respectful. The right thing to do was to not do the motorcycle stuff, because it was not serious work—it’s stuff from a phase of my life that should be seen because it can inspire people and educate people about the region. My work now, and my life, is much more serious than when I set out in my late twenties.
BG: Why do you think the Syrian revolution doesn’t need more films?
MV: What I’ve done with my film is present in a concise way who the revolutionaries are and why they fight. It does it in a moving and emotional way, and I honestly don’t think I could top it with another film. I don’t think anything I could do could advance the cause more than what I’ve done with that film. But overall, films are not having an effect on the conflict, nor for that matter the media and journalism. None of it is causing cruise missiles to fall on Assad. None of it is causing massive floats of weapons going to the Syrian opposition. Things have to be done and tried.
BG: Such as?
MV: Every means necessary that doesn’t violate my own moral compass. Anything that I’m needed or have to do, I’ll do. But it’s whatever is the best tool in the toolbox to deal with the situation at the time.
BG: So what’s next?
MV: For a long time, I’ve been trying to set up a women’s centre for Syrians. As the conflict has progressed, I’ve come to the difficult decision that I’m probably not going to be able to continue pursuing that project. Things have just changed on the ground, where the revolution is in a desperate situation and other things have to be tried. I’ll be continuing to work for the revolution. I have an obligation also to be promoting Point and Shoot, and I’ll trying to have Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution be seen by as many policy people as possible, and I’ll continue doing whatever’s needed for the cause.