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AFI Docs Review: “Point and Shoot”

Academy Award nominee Marshall Curry directs this story of a young man from Baltimore whose search for adventure takes him to the front lines of the Libyan Revolution.

Photograph courtesy of AFI Docs.

One of the key questions for any documentary is about the camera itself: How much does the presence of that video camera affect the world immediately around it? Does it change the actions of the people it’s recording, alter the outcomes of the scenes it’s capturing?

But there’s also the question of the man behind the camera. How does it change him?

Point and Shoot is a meditation on these questions and, at its heart, a wild and dangerous coming-of-age tale. Winner of Best Documentary at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, it tells the story of Matthew VanDyke, a lanky, socially awkward outcast whose desperation to become something greater takes him on a journey from his Baltimore hometown to the deserts of North Africa and finally to the 2011 Libyan revolution against Muammar Qaddafi.

And the impetus behind it all is the video camera. Despite VanDyke’s oddities—his lack of friends, his crippling obsessive compulsive disorder—the beginning of the documentary shows how similar he is to many of his generation. He grew up idolizing action movies, tales of adventure and greatness committed to celluloid. But, jobless and aimless after graduating from Georgetown, he can only live out this double life through more movies and video games. He’s haunted by a desire to do something “extraordinary” but seemingly powerless to do anything about it; call it “millennial syndrome.”

So he decides to go on an adventure. Taking a cue from an rugged Australian travel documentarian, VanDyke buys a motorcycle, packs a video camera, and sets out for North Africa on what he calls a “crash course in manhood.”

The first leg of his reckless foray is replete with corny machismo, clumsy cultural interactions, and brash motorcycle stunts. He even invents a new on-screen persona—“Max Hunter”—in a blundering attempt at transformation. But no matter what he does, he’s still the same awkward kid from Baltimore; the two incompatible identities collide when his OCD causes a motorcycle crash and lands him in a hospital with a few broken bones.

But then something changes. The documentary, directed by Academy Award nominee Marshall Curry, soon reveals itself to be an expertly constructed bildungsroman when VanDyke finds himself on a true path toward transformation. He meets Nuri, a Libyan and self-described “hippie” whose friendship sends VanDyke to the front lines of the foundering rebellion against the country’s powerful dictator.

The struggle for freedom he witnesses (and films) changes something in VanDyke. Curry asks pointed questions in the talking-head segments that intercut VanDyke’s own recordings of the conflict, and he meticulously shows the audience how his subject’s false swagger evolves into genuine devotion to the uprising’s ideals.

VanDyke’s footage is incredible. He captures not just the battles and bomb blasts, but quiet moments such as the meal before a desperate assault, lingering on the resignation in the freedom fighters’ faces. Soon he faces his own internal conflict as he races through battlegrounds with a camera in one hand and a machine gun in the other. “Am I a filmmaker, or am I a fighter?” he asks himself at one point.

The dilemma is a central theme of the documentary’s story as it builds to a thoughtful and thrilling conclusion. Curry has crafted an incredible tale of growth and transformation that is at once global and intensely personal. VanDyke set out with his camera to do something “extraordinary.” This documentary shows what sacrifices must be made to truly get there.

Screening Friday, June 20, 7:15 PM at AFI Silver Theatre.

Return to AFI Docs page.

Staff Writer

Michael J. Gaynor has written about fake Navy SEALs, a town without cell phones, his Russian spy landlord, and many more weird and fascinating stories for the Washingtonian. He lives in DC, where his landlord is no longer a Russian spy.