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American Filmmaker 'Point and Shoot' in Libya

The story sounds like a work of fiction: A young American filmmaker takes to the road on a motorcycle. He and his video camera travel around the Arab world. He ends up fighting with Libyan rebels opposed to Moammar Gadhafi.

This series of events may sound unreal. But it is a true story and the subject of an unusual documentary, called “Point and Shoot.”

The story began a few years ago when Matthew Van Dyke was living at home with his mother in the American state of Maryland. At the time, the young man was in his middle 20s.

In an effort to jumpstart his life, he bought a motorcycle and decided to drive it through the Arab world. He also decided to take pictures of everything he did – with the hope of making an adventure-travel movie.

Matthew Van Dyke had plenty of memorable experiences on his trip. His fear of dirt and insects was always being tested. When he first saw a squat toilet-hole, he did not understand what it was. So he instead used a shower -- a place for washing up. Eating from a communal bowl with Libyan friends also was a problem. His motorcycle got stuck in sand and broke down.

The young American was arrested and detained in several countries. In Kabul, a street mob beat him up. In Iraq, American soldiers taught him how to shoot automatic weapons – his first experience with a gun.

Matthew Van Dyke says the friends he made on his trip were among the best he had ever known. He remembers making friends in Libya in 2008.

But then the Arab Spring came.

Political unrest in Tunisia spread to other countries. So when the Libyan revolution began, he left his mother and his girlfriend, and returned to Libya.

“When the revolution started, I was in contact with those friends over the Internet and by phone, and they told me what was happening, the friends and familieis of theirs. And I realized that this was a place I cared about and people I cared about, and I couldn’t just sit at home and do nothing while this was happening to them.”

Matthew Van Dyke met up with a Libyan named Nouri and other rebels. But a short time later, the American was injured and taken prisoner. He spent nearly six months in a prison under the control of forces loyal to then Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He thought he might be there forever – if he was not executed. After a jail break freed him, he had only one thought:

“Of course, I was going to go back to the frontline. When I came to Libya I told the men I was with I would stay until Libya was free, and my mother raised me to honor my commitments, so I was going to stay. I wasn’t going to leave before any other prisoners of war in the country were released. I wasn’t going to leave until we achieved victory.”

Carrying a gun in one hand, and his camera in the other, he continued to film his experiences and those of other fighters. The rebels used their cell phones to upload images to Facebook. It was the first war documented in real time by combatants in battle.

“My primary responsibility as a fighter was to the gun, not to the camera, but when there were lulls in the fighting or opportunities to also film, I did that on the side so the guys could one day show their kids how they defeated Gadhafi, and to document history, and just out of habit of setting up a camera while I’m doing something to film it for later.”

When the Libyan revolution ended, Matthew VanDyke returned to the United States. He then sought out director Marshall Curry to make the film “Point and Shoot”. But it was more than just a simple adventure-travel film.

Point and Shoot won the top documentary prize this year at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. Matthew Van Dyke also made a short film called “Not Anymore” about the Syrian conflict. He has set aside filmmaking for now, and become active for groups fighting both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State militants.

“I’m taking everything I learned over the years on the road and in all the countries and in Libya especially and finding new and creative ways to apply it mostly in the fight against ISIS now.”

But his travels are continuing. As Point and Shoot opens in U.S. theaters, Matthew Van Dyke is planning his next Middle East trip. He plans to go to Iraq in December, in part to present $15,000 he raised for humanitarian aid for Kurds there.

I'm Marsha James

*This report was based on a story from VOA reporter Carolyn Weaver in New York. Marsha James wrote it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in this Story

jumpstart - v. to give new energy to (something)
squat n. a position in which your knees are bent and your body lowered so that you are close to your heels or sitting on your heels

communal – adj. shared or used by members of a group or community

combatant- n. a person, group, or country that fights in a war or battle

humanitarian - n. a person who works to make other people’s lives better

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