Posts Tagged ‘Grizzly Man’

Ten years ago Werner Herzog released Grizzly Man, a found-footage documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a self-styled grizzly bear whisperer. Treadwell spent an astonishing 13 summers living amongst bears and filming his encounters with the dangerous creatures in the Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska. Tragically a bear killed him and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard in 2003, after they had amassed hundreds of hours of footage.

Herzog’s posthumous examination of Treadwell’s obsessively crafted self-image is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film and yet there is a limitation; Treadwell is not present to reflect for himself on his extreme life choices. Point and Shoot directed by Marshall Curry appears like the fortunate cousin of Grizzly Man, in which we find Matthew VanDyke (the film’s protagonist, cinematographer and producer), a similarly remarkable self-documentarian, prone to extremes, who lives to tell the tale.

Like Timothy Treadwell we discover an equally conflicted personality in Matthew VanDyke – a suburban American lay about, by his own admission – who following college decided to embark on a vast motorcycle journey across North Africa and the Middle East, which inadvertently lead him to become a Libyan revolutionary during the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. Prior to the revolution VanDyke had set out to make what could have been a narcissistic motorbike film of his own journey; what he documented however, amounts to more. Point and Shoot, constructed editorially by director Curry concerns warfare in the times of digital media, the price of freedom and the human need to mold our self-image. It also makes us wonder if Matthew VanDyke is entirely who he says he is.

An OCD sufferer, with symptoms at the severe end of the spectrum, VanDyke suggests that being in challenging situations helps alleviate his symptoms and gives him the feeling of living life more fully. This is clearly depicted in the freewheeling, often beautiful footage shot upon desolate roads in desert landscapes. He is a character who appears strangely comfortable being alone. However, a five-month stint in a Libyan prison – portrayed with animated point-of-view sequences – paints entirely the opposite picture, in which VanDyke’s mental state is pushed to the limits.

Intercut with VanDyke’s treasure trove of footage is material that Marshall Curry shot to lend greater context to the events in question. There is an interview with VanDyke himself, in which he speaks about his motivations and experiences, as well as an interview with his committed girlfriend Lauren Fischer who is semi-supportive of his goals on account of his supposedly strengthened character. There is something very clean cut about their interview responses, provoking the feeling that Curry could have dug further in his inquiry.

The most unexpected aspect of Point and Shoot is how VanDyke adapts to the war-torn conditions; he does so with the tuition of American soldiers who he befriends while biking across Afghanistan. They teach him how to operate various weapons. These skills, learned in situ, are then transferred to his newfound friends in Libya to aid the resistance, a story that feels only too familiar in Western-Middle Eastern political relations. The most human scenes in the film happen between VanDyke and friend Nuri Funas. Funas himself is something of a hippy, who in 1999 began to travel the world on foot to spread a message of peace. He believes wholeheartedly in his country’s revolution, but being a peace lover admits that he would not have wanted to kill Gaddafi himself.

The film does not scrutinise the wider implications of the American presence in the Middle East and is straightforward in its perspective on events leading to the overthrow of Gaddafi. The most compelling, but simultaneously confounding aspect of the film, is the very notion that someone could set themselves up as a freelance revolutionary, journalist and filmmaker in the region with no experience. As strange as the reality presented by Point and Shoot is, the film does make for a fascinating look at the kind of characters who converge in the midst of a revolution – whatever their true motive may be.

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Last week I had the opportunity to see Werner Herzog’s much anticipated documentary Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life at its UK premiere at the London Film Festival. I am a great fan of Herzog’s work and I recognise that one key to the success of his films is his presence as a personality.

In Grizzly Man Herzog’s own opinion (put across via voice over) plays counterpoint to the outlook of Timothy Treadwell, the films main character. While Treadwell’s story is fascinating it would be much less interesting without Herzog’s idiosyncratic narration.  As an audience we have come to expect Herzog to feature as a key character in his documentaries (as he did in Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams). This is where Into the Abyss differs.

Into the Abyss tells the tale of a triple homicide in Texas, 2001 which lead to one perpetrator, Michael Perry receiving the death penalty and the other, Jason Burkett, a life sentence. The victims’ families feature prominently as part of Herzog’s investigation, as do a number of other figures including an ex-death house team leader, a death row chaplain and the officers who worked on the case. Herzog’s collection of interview subjects and his interview style successfully gain crucial insight into the crime as well as exploring the overall nature of the death penalty.

Herzog’s approach to this sobering subject is always respectful. His dignified approach is evident in his decision not to use voice over narration as normal, opting for title cards and subtitles to offer key information. Herzog does not want to distract the audience with his own personality and this allows us to focus on the characters whose lives were affected by the initial murders, as well as Michael Perry’s impending execution.

Instead what we are left with is an exploration of a crime that delves deep into the issue of whether it can ever be considered right to take another life. It is a film that does not judge its characters, but it does judge the choices and actions that are made by individuals as well as institutions. Into the Abyss is a tasteful study of a difficult subject which remains sensitive at all times without pulling any punches. It is perhaps the best work of Herzog’s recent, outstanding group of documentaries.

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