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Winner of the TFF 2014 Best Documentary Feature Prize, Point and Shoot chronicles the life of Baltimore native Matthew VanDyke, who, after finishing graduate school, left the U.S. to embark on a “crash course in manhood.” Riding his motorcycle across North Africa and the Middle East, Matthew ended up in Libya where he got involved in the 2011 Libyan Revolution, joining the fight against Gaddafi.
Using footage shot by VanDyke over the course of his travels, TFF alum and Oscar nominee Marshall Curry skillfully presents Matthew’s incredible story, including the 6 months Matthew spent in solitude in a Gaddafi prison. We got the opportunity to speak with Curry about being present in the moment, his editing process, and how we define ourselves in the 21st century.
Tribeca: Point and Shoot won Best Doc at this year’s Festival. Can you talk about the experience of sharing your film with an audience for the first time?
Marshall Curry: I think Point and Shoot is an unusual movie—in terms of both the structure and the issues that it raises. At the Tribeca premiere, I was a little nervous that maybe people wouldn’t understand it in the way that I wanted them to so to have it win Best Documentary Feature was even more thrilling [laughs]!
The movie asks many questions that it doesn’t answer. It even ends with me asking Matthew VanDyke, the subject of the film whether he thinks he successfully completed his” crash course in manhood” and I cut to black before he answers the question. The reason I chose to edit it that way is that I wanted the audience members to engage with the questions that the movie raises on their own. I wanted them to discuss the questions of manhood, war, violence, filmmaking and identity on their own. I didn’t want to answer those questions for them.
I feel like Point and Shoot is movie for people who like to chew their own food; it doesn’t chew their food for them. I remember going across the street to a Thai restaurant after the premiere. There were two separate tables at the restaurant where I could overhear people yelling at each other about the film. That was music to the ears of the documentary filmmaker. It meant that people were engaged with the questions and the characters.
Tribeca: I read that Matthew VanDyke initially approached you with the idea for the documentary. Can you talk about your first meeting?
MC: I had not heard anything about this story until Matthew emailed me one day and introduced himself. He told me he had returned from Libya where he had this incredible experience and that he had footage of it. He came to New York with his girlfriend, Lauren to meet with me and my wife, who’s a producer on the film. We must have chatted for 3 or 4 hours about Matthew’s story. After they left, my wife and I couldn’t stop talking about it. It just raised so many great questions about filmmaking, war, manhood and identity.
I knew I didn’t want to do a typical biopic where I would go and talk to Matt’s high school teacher and interview all sorts of people from his past. I thought we should just try to capture the experience we just had, the experience of sitting down with a stranger who has this amazing story to tell with incredible footage to go along with it. I explained to Matt that the only way I worked on films was to have complete creative control and independence, and he agreed to that. And soon after, I went down to Baltimore and did the interview that comprises the spine of the film.
I feel like Point and Shoot is movie for people who like to chew their own food; it doesn’t chew their food for them.
Tribeca: One of the moments in the film that stood out to me was when Matthew says “I suppose I was crafting myself, using the camera to write my own life story.” Matthew is so self aware.
MC: One of the themes of the film that I find most interesting is the way people use cameras to craft their self-images. You see Matt do it many times in the film, but it’s actually more universal than just him. In the film, you see American soldiers in Iraq asking Matt to film them kicking in a door. They want to look like Hollywood versions of soldiers, even though they’re actual soldiers. And there are scenes with Libyan rebels who are battling to free their country from a dictator, but at the same time, they are conscious of how they look on film. You see them spraying machine-gun fire at the enemy, with 3 or 4 other rebels filming them with cell-phone cameras to put up on Youtube or Facebook or to email to girlfriends.
And it's not just people in the film. With the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras today, I think a lot of us are constantly thinking about images that we’re taking and the way that they portray us. I find myself on vacation wondering: am I enjoying my vacation or am I looking for photo ops of myself enjoying my vacation to put up on Facebook.
Tribeca: What does this urge to document and share even our most extreme experiences say about our society?
MC: I think people have always told stories about themselves. Salman Rushdie has said that the act of telling stories about your life gives you control over your life. It helps to shape your identity, not just to others, but also to yourself. What we’re doing now—sharing our lives with others through social media and the internet—is as old as storytelling.
I remember going to a Civil War museum in Gettysburg and looking at these old daguerreotypes of these young soldiers getting ready to go fight. They were all standing there holding their guns to get their portrait taken before they went off to war. I think that, for a lot of young men—and it tends to be largely men—this desire to be seen in a certain way has to do with being seen with guns— it’s an old, universal instinct and drive.
Tribeca: Like you said, the spine of the documentary is your series of interviews with Matthew as he reflects on his journey. However, the bulk of the footage was filmed by Matthew himself. How did you establish and hold the line between documentarian and subject?
MC: There was never a question about that. If I was going to direct a film about his life and story, it was going to be 100% independent. It doesn’t mean that Matt doesn’t have a very significant role in the making of the film. Matt shot the footage and was the person telling this story. However, there were many issues that interested me more than they interested him, particularly about how we use cameras to craft our lives.
I think there are things that he wishes could be in the movie that were less interesting to me or couldn’t fit in because of time. That’s very difficult. It would be very rare for the subject of any 90-minute documentary to feel that the story perfectly captured every detail of his or her life.
Tribeca: Point and Shoot moved fast, but was perfectly paced at 82 minutes. Was it always your intention to shoot for that running time?
MC: I felt like that was the right length for this movie. Most of the films that I’ve made are right around 90 minutes Racing Dreams is a couple minutes over— the rest are a couple minutes under. I’d rather have a film be too short than too long, so I try to get any fat out of there and just have it be as taut and sinewy as possible.
Tribeca: I can only imagine how many hours of footage Matthew brought to you.
MC: He had between 100 and 200 hours of footage, and I shot 20-something hours of interviews with him. The interview that makes up the spine of the movie was actually shot over two long days of interviews. I did 2 more audio-only pick-up interviews with him while I was editing.
Tribeca: I was really blown away by the animated sequence you used to give audiences an idea of Matthew’s ordeal in prison. Did you always intend to employ animation in that part of Matthew’s story? Can you explain your thought process?
MC: When Matt was captured by Gaddafi's troops, they obviously took away his camera. Fortunately, he had backed up his footage on a hard-drive and stashed it in Benghazi a couple of days before he was captured. That’s how we have all the footage leading up to the day he was captured. Once he was out of prison, he bought another camera, and that’s how we have everything after his time in prison.
Since there was no footage of him for the time he was in prison, I thought pretty early that this would need to be done by animation. But there are so many different styles possible. I talked to Joe Posner, who is an animator who worked with me on If A Tree Falls. We decided that animating Matt as a character after the audience had spent all this time seeing him as a real person might feel a little bit silly. We thought it would be more powerful to put the audience in Matt’s head. Everything in the animated section of the film is from his POV. When he looks down, the audience sees his feet, and when he puts his hands up, they see his hands touch the wall. That does two things: one, it enables the audience to feel a bit of what it was like to be in a seven-by-four prison cell, an incredibly traumatic ordeal obviously. Two, it allows us to explore the hallucinations that haunted Matt while he was in prison.
Fortunately, after the war was over, Matt went back and found his prison cell again and took photos and video of it. So we knew exactly what it looked like. Joe did a photo-realistic 3D animation of the cell, so the graffiti on the wall are exactly how it actually looked. We decided to do a different style for the hallucination and the objects within the cell. Those are all done with an impressionistic animation, where it’s literally a thousand different painted pictures strung together.
The challenge of trying to be present in a moment at the same time you are filming is a classic documentary filmmaker’s challenge.
Tribeca: How difficult was the editing process? Can you explain your approach?
MC: It was quite different from what I’ve normally done in the past. When I’m shooting my own movies, I’m editing in my head at the same time. So I know the material I’m getting, and I have an idea of how things are going to fit together. I usually shoot in anticipation of the edit that I’m imagining. In this case, Matt shot most of the footage, so I was working with someone else’s vision. Creatively, that was a bit of a challenge.
However, it was also a huge benefit for me. I didn’t have to go fight in Libya or spend years in Afghanistan or Iraq [laughs]. Ultimately the job of making images into a movie is fundamentally the same, but it was difficult not to be the person who shot the footage.
Tribeca: Matthew’s camera is almost a second character in the film. He often held a camera in one hand and a gun in the other while fighting with the Libyan rebellion. Could you relate to his passion/dedication to his craft?
MC: The challenge of trying to be present in a moment at the same time you are filming is a classic documentary filmmaker’s challenge. You want to be there with people, you want to be a human being involved in people’s lives, but at the same time, you have to think about focus, framing and lighting. Holding those two perspectives in your mind is a huge challenge. For Matthew, I imagine it was that much more difficult because people were shooting bullets at him [laughs]. So he took that challenge to a whole other level.
Tribeca: Is Matthew planning to make documentaries for himself now?
MC: He has been continuing to shoot. When I was doing Point and Shoot, he shot a short film in Syria that’s been playing at festivals. I think he wants to continue being involved in documentary filmmaking. However, I’m not sure what his long-term plans are.
Tribeca: Is there a recent trend in documentary filmmaking that you’re eager to see go away?
MC: [Laughs.] No, I’m not a purist when it comes to documentaries. I love impressionistic documentaries, verite documentaries. I love a well-made talking-head documentary. There’s a good Duke Ellington quote that I love where he says “if it sounds good, it is good.” I feel the same way about documentaries.