A new film charts Matthew VanDyke's transformation from a meek motorcycle adventurer to a fighter on the front lines of the Libyan Civil War. He talks to Chris Schulz

Who, exactly, is Matthew VanDyke? Is he a film-maker? Or an adventurer? Is he a madman with a death wish?

Or, as some Middle Eastern military regimes might suggest, is he a terrorist?

VanDyke, whose barely believable, award-winning film Point and Shoot details his exploits on the front lines as a rebel soldier in the Libyan Civil War, puts it differently.

"I'm certainly a fighter," he says. "During the war in Libya, the camera to me was always secondary. I was there as a fighter, and I needed to keep my attention on that."


But how did the otherwise placid Baltimore resident find himself brandishing a rifle helping to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi's regime during the 2011 uprising?

To answer that, you have to go to 2007 when, in his mid-20s, VanDyke had a reawakening.

With his parents still doing his washing and cooking, the shy VanDyke realised he needed to "become a man". So he bought a motorbike, packed a camera in his backpack, said goodbye to his family and headed to Morocco to film himself biking through the Middle East.

That's where Point and Shoot, which recently won Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, starts, and VanDyke admits it can be "embarrassing" to watch that early footage again.

"When I set out I was certainly a different person to who I became. I couldn't even leave my hotel room in Morocco for the first few days. There was a lot of personal development ... it's sometimes embarrassing."

He travelled for four years, biking through Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Afghanistan filming everything - including his own bike crashes and posturing American soldiers - along the way.

But that's not what Point and Shoot is about. Initially, VanDyke thought he'd be making a motorbike travel documentary in the style of Australian adventurer Alby Mangels. So after his motorcycle adventures were over, he headed home and set up meetings with directors about making a movie out of his footage.

"I didn't even want to leave America again," VanDyke says. "I told my girlfriend, 'I want a normal life now, I'm done with this. I'm tired, I'm frustrated'."

But after seeing a news report on television about the uprising in Libya, he realised he had friends fighting on the front lines and got on a plane the very same day.

Edited from almost 200 hours of footage by director Marshall Curry, VanDyke's story is a white-knuckle ride comprised of first-person footage intercut with interviews that lets viewers see the war from VanDyke's point of view.

He says it's only luck that he wasn't killed during more than 40 enemy engagements -- or during the six months he spent in jail after being caught by Gaddafi's soldiers, which compounded his battle against obsessive compulsive disorder.

"We were constantly at risk. It's a very dangerous war, very unpredictable. Whether a mortar lands near you, whether a bullet hits you or a sniper gets you or a soldier inside accidentally discharges his weapon -- it's really just luck of the draw."

His family, says VanDyke, were supportive -- to a point, and Point and Shoot includes tense interviews with members of VanDyk's family.

"When I told my mother I was going to Libya to support the revolution she said she understood and if she was my age she'd be doing the same thing. Then she drove me to the airport.

"My girlfriend supports me. She's a little less understanding about me returning to the front lines. She understands why I did it but of course she wanted me home after not really knowing if I was alive most of that time."

VanDyke knows he can't set foot in many of the countries that he initially biked through, but he says he's fine with that. He's still campaigning against oppressive regimes, using his films and celebrity status. Besides, Point and Shoot achieves many of the same goals that he had from the start.

"As far as inspiring people to pursue their dreams, and showing that it's possible as long as you don't give up, and showing that OCD can be overcome, it still achieves many of the same goals. And I will be perfectly fine if I don't have to see people killing each other again."

What: Matthew VanDyke in Point and Shoot
Where: New Zealand International Film Festival
When: Screenings start this Friday, July 18
More: Visit nziff.co.nz

- TimeOut