Hello and welcome to a new series of posts I will hope to write daily. In this series – “Re-viva-vision” I will watch a documentary film as part of my revision for my upcoming Viva and put how I felt about it into some sort of words. This will help get me into gear, get my documentary knowledge up to scratch and hopefully shine some light on some of the more unusual, rare or otherwise under-exposed documentaries that exist and which I should give a damn about.
The first in this series is a documentary by Marshall Curry, Point and Shoot (2014, USA). The film follows Matt Van Dyke, a 26 year old man with a withdrawn and shy demeanour who attempts to transform himself through a “crash course in manhood”, becoming a wild adventurer by travelling across the middle-east on a motorbike and documenting his adventures as he discovers the Arabic world first-hand. The story takes a dramatic turn as, with the Arab Spring engulfing administrations across the globe, the protagonist starts to document history not as a passive observer but as a solider of revolution himself, part of violent revolutionary activity in Libya.
From the point of view of my own research, this film intersects a number of crucial themes; protest (esp. the so called “Arab Spring”), auto-ethnography (the act of interrogating oneself) and constructions of gender. Of most importance, and entangling each of these threads, are the films explorations of the camera’s role to craft images of one-self; however my critical position on the work is that elements of this are limited to thematic or narrative concerns rather than be exceptionally structural or formative to the piece. Though interesting in parts, it is not substantially edifying or intellectually nourishing, or dare it be said ‘transformative’ as one might hope, though still worth a watch.
Unpacking this analysis we should consider how it was made. Importantly, the film was constructed after the event from interviews with Van Dyke and using the footage he produced on his travels – around 100 hours or so – as well as other archive footage from news broadcasts and home videos to create a documentary that presents Van Dyke’s account in a faithful manner. My own personal concern is that it fails to adequately interrogate the subjectivity implicit in such Van Dyke’s account – it is the story of a man finding a story in himself, recounted by that man knowingly within an interview for the documentary – the impact of which is a story, and admittedly quite a remarkable one, that is treated ambivalently – but to a far greater extent than the director anticipates.
Self-image is perhaps the theme most explored in the film; the central narrative that holds the work together is the journey of the protagonist Matt Van Dyke – originally shy and withdrawn, living at home with his parents – deliberately attempting to transform into his pre-conceived notion of what a man should be by throwing himself into the adventures he imagines real men experience. Through his adventures, he attempts to redefine himself – not at all dissimilar to my own attempts as part of I Did This – to the point that this process is taken literally: becoming “Max Hunter”. This scene, in which Van Dyke/Hunter stands awkwardly front and centre of the camera’s frame, stood in a white room, staring straight at the camera and narrating us through his equipment – a serrated knife, a stab vest, his motorcycle leathers – we are never seduced, we are never convinced by his attempts; he remains, for now, the Van Dyke he had been before – only unwashed and long haired.
The film explore this idea of self-image in other ways; reference is made to his time in the middle-east (Afghanistan or Iraq, not sure) embedded as a journalist of sorts with American troops. These soldiers, it is suggested, wanted to perform for him in front of the camera. One scene has a soldier asking his director, Van Dyke, to prepare a shot of him kicking down a door as part. As he fails to succeed, unable to display the raw heroics from the movies, there is a contrast to the narration of Van Dyke, referencing the event from his lounge, in which he seems confused by the situation: these were men pretending to be soldiers, performing as soldiers – but of course, they were soldiers already. For Van Dyke, the implication seems strange, but the complexity of performance and reality is hardly a concern – a projection on my part perhaps, but it would make sense throughout that he remains disconnected to the “man” he believes himself to be, and does not raise any consideration of this ineptitude.
One aspect of this is the unavoidable nature of his mental state. The focus on Van Dyke’s condition – suffering to a degree with OCD – and having this be played out within the fields of war bears fruit. The occasional return to this – his fear of sugar, a ritual of consuming food from a shared bowl, his experiences living in squalor while on the frontline, is a remarkable perspective within warfare. That his condition is never overcome, that he as a figure always remains uncertain suggests further his inability to grow or change, despite the incredible undertaking of which he, as we are shown, is capable.
Further to this, and one of the key sequences in the film, the psychological aspect of shooting is broken down. Within the final sequences of Curry’s work, Van Dyke is questioned surrounding a single moment of the battlefield, in which he is asked to pick off a human in the final wave of fighting – a figure we are shown in detail on camera. He then asks an accomplice to film him shooting the man, and the shot is fired. Did he kill the man? Did he kill anyone? [SPOLER WARNING] Though this instance is shown to be unsuccessful, Van Dyke doesn’t appear remorseful in any way – he believes he would have killed, and even that he should have killed in this instance – and we are left in the dark
But this said, the film does not seem critical enough. This claim can be made first, in the broadest strokes, to its treatment of Van Dyke himself. His story is sold as a tremendous undertaking – no different to the epic subject matter of any narrative film of commercial cinema – and rather than offer critique of the fading heroicism central to cinema’s inherent masculinity, seems slavishly indebted to it; his adventure as a crash course in becoming a man is inspired by a very limited consideration of manliness. Van Dyke’s efforts are inspired by his affections for the work of Alby Mangels, an Australian film maker whose ‘documentaries’ focused on him grappling, almost always literally, with the world around him. Mangels’ film-making style is, to modern eyes, a grotesque re-imagining of natural history non-fiction programming: one part Steve Irwin, one part David Attenborough, one million parts gasoline and crocodile teeth. It can, to an extent, be forgiven for coming from a previous time, and though there would clearly be a market for such thing today – after all who can resist the sight of a man punching an animal in the pursuit of truth – its production today might be considered as “problematic”.
For Van Dyke, the character within Point and Shoot, his desire to see the world and embark on adventure is inspired by these films; not only as a stylistic referent – himself as centre of adventure and narrative – but as a role model for his way of being itself. For the film-maker Curry, the story cannot be told without this reference. But instead of it becoming an obvious juxtaposition for themes of masculinity and heroes, and the production of self-image, it merely becomes a moment for some light relief. In reality, Van Dyke’s attempts to mimic this work is complicated – it clearly is not in his nature, even though he performs similar actions, but this space between these aspects are rarely explored.
Similarly, despite manliness being a central theme, there are few moments in which any notion of masculinity are really explored. In one sequence, in which Van Dyke claims to be shocked by men holding hands on a trip to Libya, we are confronted by the realisation that these men are not remarkably liberal in openly embracing a homosexual relationship, but actually just comfortably heterosexual. It is as if our own culture has promoted masculinity to be afraid of itself, and develop shame – the extension of which, in combination with what is presented by the rest of the film, is that brazen strength and dramatic violence are to be celebrated. This is the only moment in the film when the question of how gender is constructed – and this only tangentially – where macro-levels of performativity might be questioned, where we address our relationship of how we behave to the culture in whose image we are built, are considered, but it is taken the opposite direction.
The context of these ideas are never examined; it is one man’s story and its boundaries are left unprovoked. Obviously a film doesn’t need to be so critical of its place, but in the context of its self-reflexivity (shots of Van Dyke watching his own footage on a PC, elements in which the interview scenes are broken by the imperatives of film-making and so on, Van Dyke explaining his own construction of motorcycle sequences) the relationship of media and our construction are barely excavated, lightly dusted at best.
Yet clearly, this was a concern; the director reiterates certain decisions made during the process that echo the sentiment of my criticism. Curry claims that he wanted the encounter with Van dyke to feel “informal and intimate”, though even here admits professional conceits in order for this to be achieved.1 Further to this, the film was put together in this way “to strip away anything that felt like slick, glossy production and give the audience the feeling that they had just stumbled on this guy at his desk”. 2
Authenticity is rarely addressed, but seems utterly central to our understanding of what took place. One can point to one sequence in particular that [SPOILER ALERT] depicts the passage of time for Matt as he is imprisoned by Gaddafi loyalists while in Libya; without footage to use, aside from that made by Matt on returning to his jail after the event, a reconstruction is forged through animation. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film, particularly as Van Dyke’s OCD is pushed to its extreme – a man fearful of sugar out of place having to share a cell with insects that share with him both his food and his faeces – while Van Dyke imagines the media circus surrounding an imagined injustice of his imprisonment. However, these elements are almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the film, and at points feel akin to a placeholders in the story for lack of footage, albeit quite wonderfully animated, rather than essential to conveying the film’s true meaning. [/SPOILER] Of course, we have evidence of what took place – but truly how objective can this work be?
Further to this, Curry claims that the documentary was deliberately ambiguous in the way it dealt with the subject matter, highlighting the ending, and questions throughout, which are left unresolved:
I didn’t want to pretend that there were tidy solutions. I hoped that ending the film with a question like that would communicate to the audience that it didn’t matter how Matt felt or how the director felt. What mattered was how they felt. 3
For me, these are too subtle, and other techniques used in the production are disingenuous to this objective. The result is that these elements seem stylistically employed rather than themselves be crucial to a reading of the film. It is, perhaps for my tastes, too gently alienating, and rather than feature these elements as in any way disruptive to an audience’s reaction to the film, tantamount to its construction as entertainment. However, having been through this process myself – both in front of and behind the camera – I can vouch for the disparity between intention and the outcome of effects; it is enough to say therefore that for me the documentary does not succeed adequately to the objectives suggested by its director, but we shouldn’t ignore that these attempts are made.
As mentioned, by the end of the film, Van Dyke has completed his journey into manhood, complete with a rugged beard and fear of washing, and we are left to mull over the questions that surround what he did. Is he a hero? Has he changed? Who is this man? Rather than be left with no idea to these answers, opinions are fairly easily forged – the guy in question is not the hero he imagines, but has become a monster of sorts – whether as the violent destroyer of life or as an anaesthetised shell, though inevitably both – but this is not addressed in any meaningful way. Research beyond merely watching the film suggests Van Dyke has become the founder of “Sons of Liberty International”, that offers free training for Iraqi Christians fighting ISIS, the extent of his radical attitude pushed into violent extremism. He isn’t ashamed that he may have killed, there is no ambiguity left.
But then of course, he has done something. My work aimed towards some sort of political transformation – this guy took part in the revolution of a country. There is an aspect in my documentary where, talking to camera, I ask what it is I want – do I want to change the world, or do I want to ask questions about changing the world. I am trying to engage the audience in meaningful process, of throwing down the shackles of their perceived lives, abandoning middle England to become agents of change, but attempt this through overwrought self-analysis. Where as Van Dyke actually picked up a gun and stood between what he believed to be wrong and the beliefs he stood for. Perhaps this is the ambiguity that the director imagines; a self-interrogation – what the hell am I doing to make a difference in the world?
As a matter of interest, there is a similar story in the podcast Love + Radio in which Sam Najjair, of Irish-Libyan descent, leaves his life as a directionless Dubliner to become a courageous hero in the overthrow of Tripoli. This work is far more suited to an interrogation and is highly recommended listening.
What is it? Film about an American citizen who tries to become the man he wishes he was, and embarks on a wild adventure, eventually fighting on the front line for a revolutionary army in Libya.
Is it worth seeing? Yes.
Where can I see it? Unknown. Previously broadcast in the UK by the BBC as part of their Storyville series under the name “The Arabian Motorcycle Adventures”.
What other films might be connected to this? The director suggests other films which use a single interview as a narrator that inspired his use here – The Kid Stays in the Picture and The Fog of War. For documentaries that feature an interrogation of self-image one could look towards Tarnation, but perhaps more suitably The Act of Killing – which you must see. You might also want to watch Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, an award winning short film by Matt Van Dyke. Or perhaps “It’s better to jump“.
- Curry here suggesting that particular lighting was chosen to simulate sunlight to counter the changes in light that would actually occur. Responses to FAQs from the director taken from http://pointandshootfilm.com/faq.html – accessed 4:40pm Oct 12th 2015. ↩
- Responses to FAQs from the director taken from http://pointandshootfilm.com/faq.html – accessed 4:40pm Oct 12th 2015. ↩
- Responses to FAQs from the director taken from http://pointandshootfilm.com/faq.html – accessed 4:40pm Oct 12th 2015. ↩