Documentarian Marshall Curry’s previous films — the Cory Booker campaign saga “Street Fight” and the environmental-minded “If a Tree Falls,” both nominated for Oscars — were fly-on-the-wall, capturing reality as it happened. For his latest, “Point and Shoot,” most of the footage was already shot for him. It tells the crazy story of Matthew VanDyke, a Baltimorean who let his wanderlust take him first to Morocco, then to Libya, where he found himself fighting in the Civil War, camera in one hand, gun in the other.
What was it like making a documentary out of someone else’s footage?
It’s got its pros and cons. When I’m shooting a film I’m editing it in my head. I know exactly what kinds of shots I’m looking for. In this case I was working with footage that someone else had shot. How I was constructing it to tell a coherent story was sometimes different than what Matt was thinking when he was shooting. But the pros are I didn’t have to go get shot at in Libya and spend years wandering around the Middle East. I don’t want to complain too much.
It really just tells the story and doesn’t, say, interview a bunch of people VanDyke met.
When he first approached me he came to New York and met with me and my wife, who’s a producer on the film. He told us the story, and after he left we couldn’t stop talking about it. It raised so many questions about manhood and war and violence and film and the way we create and craft our images. I thought we could reproduce the experience that we’d just had of meeting somebody and hearing their story, that also happens to be illustrated with amazing footage. I wanted to let the audience ask questions and interpret the experience for themselves. It’s that feeling where you’re on a bus and you meet a stranger who tells you a story, and you can’t stop thinking about it.
This has similarities with “Grizzly Man,” in that both are about filmmakers working with footage shot by someone in dangerous environments.
Werner Herzog said [“Grizzly Man”] was an argument between him and [subject] Timothy Treadwell. That movie is a takedown of Treadwell. “Point and Shoot” is intended to just expose [VanDyke] to [audiences]. I feel like it’s a movie for people who like to chew their own food. I don’t want to chew your food for you. That’s why it asks a lot of questions but doesn’t answer them. I did that because I want the audience to ask those questions themselves and wrestle with the answers. How I feel about it or how Matt feels about it are less interesting to me than how members of the audience interprets it.
What was the angle of the story that really got you hooked in telling it?
This movie is different from the movie Matt would have made. I was interested in the question of how we tell our stories. That’s why I include footage of him making the film, setting up shots, of Libyan rebels filming themselves in battle. What is the role of the camera in affecting the world around you? Now that everyone has cellphone cameras and Facebook and Twitter, everyone is involved in this process of creating self-images and publishing them to the world. You go on vacation. Are you enjoying your vacation or are you looking for photo ops of yourself enjoying your vacation that you can post on Facebook? Matt was wrestling with all those questions in an extreme setting. Salman Rushdie has a great quote about how people tell stories about their lives in order to give them control of their experiences. Telling stories helps you to organize and craft your life. For Matt the camera was his way of doing that. He wanted to write his own life story and use his camera to do that.
This is and isn’t a film about war.
To me there have been so many great films about Americans in the Middle East — “Restrepo” and others. That had been done, and done extremely well. What interested me was Matt’s journey, a person’s journey. I think the footage gives some insight into what it’s like inside an Arab civil war, and what draws people to get involved in them. There have been a number of stories recently about young Americans who get involved in the war against ISIS. This movie is an in-depth look at somebody who had a similar mission, and tries to unpack what makes somebody decide to do that. It’s ideology, it’s politics and it’s also psychology and passion. Human beings are not purely political animals. We have a lot of different elements that make us do what we do.
It’s not hard imagining a Hollywood version of this.
There are elements of that. But it doesn’t follow a Hollywood narrative. If you were scripting it you’d change a few things. Matt is a complicated character. He’s a real human, with passions and flaws. And it doesn’t tie up at the end. The Hollywood movie wouldn’t end with am unanswered question [as this film does]. The answer would be perfectly clear and sown up neatly. Life is more complicated than that, people are more complicated than that.
Cory Booker was the subject of your film “Street Fight.” Do you keep in touch?
I do a little bit. I don’t go out to dinner with Cory Booker. He’s busy. With my other subjects who aren’t U.S. senators, it’s a little bit easier to keep in touch.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter@mattprigge