By Greta Hofmann
Matthew VanDyke has had an interesting few years.In 2008, the Baltimore-born filmmaker set off on a three-year motorcycle expedition around North Africa and the Middle East, pretending to be either Afghani or Icelandic to avoid hassle from jihadists or anyone else in the region who isn’t particularly keen on Americans. During that time, he popped into bin Laden’s old home, went to cockfights in Iraq, visited mausoleums in Afghanistan and generally had a pretty nice time from the sounds of it.
In February of 2011, as he was finishing up his trip, Matthew was contacted by friends in Libya who explained the burgeoning social strife in the country, telling him that their family members were being arrested, injured or disappearing completely. In a bid to help, VanDyke flew out and became a freedom fighter against Gaddafi’s forces. Until the 13th of March, when he was hit in the head during combat and woke up in a prison in Sirte, before being transferred to two separate Tripoli prisons, where he spent a total of six months in solitary confinement.
After he disappeared, Matthew was described in the media as a freelance journalist, and various NGOs – including the Committee to Protect Journalists – lobbied Gaddafi’s government to release him. After he was eventually broken out of his cell by other prisoners, VanDyke returned to the battlefield, which pissed off a number of journalists, who accused him of choosing to be a “journalist” only when it suited him – i.e. when he wanted to go back to freedom fighting.
Those journalists obviously didn’t quite understand the full details of his case – specifically, that he’d never told anyone he was a journalist – but he remains a controversial figure in certain circles (circles that presumably don’t have any access to the internet) nonetheless. Matthew’s latest documentary, Not Anymore: A Story About Revolution, focuses on the human impact of the Syrian revolution. I gave him a call to talk about his new film, his time in prison and the distinctions between being a journalist and a documentary maker.
VICE: Hi Matthew. What has your time in the Middle East taught you about humanity?
Matthew VanDyke: I’ve basically seen the full range of humanity, from the coolest to the worst. During my years in the region, there were times that I had problems and people helped me, showing me very generous hospitality. Some of the friends I made, especially in Libya, were higher quality friends than the ones I have in America, really. But, of course, I’ve also seen some of the worst things in Libya and Syria that I’ve ever seen. It’s the full range of human experience.
What was the worst experience you had during your time there?
The worst, I guess, was when I was in prison in Libya, hearing men being violently interrogated or tortured through the walls. I’ve seen people whose feet had been beaten, I’ve seen people Gaddafi had executed – dead bodies put in graves, unmarked except for just a concrete block. On my first day in Syria, I saw a baby without a head brought into the hospital. That they would even bring the infant to the hospital had a whole other level of horror to it. They were still under shock from what had happened, I guess, so they wrapped the child in a blanket and brought it there, just hoping that something could be done.
They would pick a squeezy mop and push blood out of the hospital. It would spill like a red carpet down the stairs and onto the sidewalk – it was just so much. At the end of the day, humans are animals. And as much as we like to think that we are civilised and sophisticated, you only have to look at places like Syria to realise that we’re still barbaric.
But there are also moments of beauty, and I tried to also capture those in my film, because this isn’t just a sad story. It’s easy to show destruction and death, but what makes a difference is when you’re also showing hope. When you show resilience and when you show the death of the human spirit, that’s what moves people – and it’s about moving people, not informing people. The press’s job is to inform people, and they do a very good job of it.
Are you an angrier person now than you were before you went to war?
No. It’s sad, but I don’t get angry about it. I accepted it as the reality of what human beings are. I built up a lot of tolerance to this over the years of riding a motorcycle around the region, which is why I was able to get from escaping the prison in Libya back to the frontlines and not really have any psychological issues related to it. And I’d seen bad things before in Iraq, during that war, that prepared me for when I was in the battlefield myself. If I had gone to Syria straight out of college, I would have maybe had a different reaction.
Did you always picture your life being the way it is now?
When I was 20, I thought I would be working for the CIA. I guess my image of my life was something sort of like what I do now, in a different way.
Your documentary about Syria came out recently. What does it show us?
It shows who the Syrian people are and why they’re fighting their regime. You see Syrians talking about the revolution and their experiences and why they’re doing it, in their own words. It’s directed in a way that is designed for maximal emotional impact, while conveying what they’re saying. It’s not bookish – it’s not the History Channel. It’s meant to appeal to people’s hearts more than their minds.
The trailer for Matthew’s film, Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution.
Who would be your ideal viewer?
I’d like to say Barack Obama. But in the reality of the situation, his characterisations on what to do about Syria go far beyond any emotional impact that the film could have on him. But I guess if I had to choose – sure, the president. I’d like to get it in front of John McCain also. I hope he’ll see it. I’ve looked up to McCain for many many years. Even on things that one might disagree with him about, I had the sense that he was doing the right thing from his heart – and he’s consistent, just like me.
I say things and take positions in this revolution that aren’t popular with other people in the revolution. And I write things. I wrote about Egypt when that government was overthrown by the military. A lot of Egyptians are angry at me, I got a lot of negative comments from what I wrote. But I’m not running for office in Egypt, and I’m not running for major in Detroit – where there’s a large Arab population – either. I’m not trying to be popular. I’m trying to be honest and say what I believe and do what’s right, and I let the chips fall where they fall after that. And that’s how McCain is. I like McCain for that reason and I’ll try to get a screening on Capitol Hill sponsored and I’d like it if McCain’s people were involved. He’s been relatively spearheaded on the Syria issue.
Talking of America’s foreign policy, what was going through your mind when you placed the American flag in Osama bin Laden’s destroyed home on your bike trip through Afghanistan?
It was a combination of a memorial to my country, to 9/11, to US forces and to those who had taken on bin Laden. At the same time, it was just a giant fuck you to bin Laden. So it was kind of an act of defiance mixed with an act of remembrance. We spent most of the time there undercover as Afghans or people from Iceland.
Nobody hates Iceland. In fact, most people don’t even know where it is. And they were fascinated by the fact that Iceland has months of mostly daylight and months of mostly darkness, so we were focusing on that.
You should have filmed it.
I wish I had. I did get filmed when I lost a wrestling match in front of hundreds of Afghans, actually. People asked where I was from and I said Iceland, so now Iceland looks bad on the world wrestling shortlist.
Matthew VanDyke in a Libyan jail cell, where he spent six months after being captured by Gaddafi’s forces.
On to your stint in the Libyan prison – you were there for almost six months, did that ever make you doubt that your mission was worth it?
Yes, of course. I had nearly six months with nothing to do but sit and stare at a wall and think about my life and what had led me to that cell. I did a calculation once when I got back and worked out I’d spent over 4,000 hours, mostly in silence, staring at a wall. That’s a lot of time for self-reflection. I became a bit more spiritual in some ways and I learned a lot of patience. Some people are amazed about my patience now, but when you’re waiting for six months for somebody to come and help you break out of prison, you learn patience.
And you stayed fighting in Libya after you were released. Was your first thought not, ‘I’m going straight home’?
No. Before I was captured, I told my friends I would not leave Libya until Libya was freed. My mother raised me to be iron in my commitments, and after she talked to me on the phone, she told my girlfriend, “Be ready, because he’s not coming back.” When I didn’t come back, my girlfriend asked my mother, “How did you know that?” She told her that this is how I am, and it’s what she raised me to be. I made a commitment to these men that I would stand with them and fight with them until to end. So I should go home just because I got out of prison? No way.
What do you have to say to those in the journalist community who are angered about you switching between being a journalist and being a freedom fighter when it suits you?
You know, the Committee to Protect Journalists lobbying for your release under the asumption you were a freelance journalist, then you returning to fight as soon as your release had been secured.
Please don’t call me a journalist. People still do that, even though I’m not. And the journalist community isn’t irritated. There were, like, ten people who were irritated to bicker and bitch and a lot of them have their own reasons for doing it. The fact is that I’ve been balefully accused for two years now and it causes me such immense emotional distress. These people try to destroy me.
The reason they still call me a journalist is that they are looking for a one-worder that fits in a headline. My family argued with journalists not to call me a journalist when I was missing, and they still did it. When I escaped prison and found out that I was a journalist, it was news to me. I’m not unbiased, not impartial like journalists should be. I don’t report news. When I was in Syria, partly because of my actions in Libya, I had access to things that I would see in the news weeks later, but I did not report on them.
Why did you actively choose not to be a journalist?
Because I don’t cross lines – I don’t mix things. I don’t think journalists should be pro-revolution; journalists should show up, report the news and not take a side. I’m so determined not to cross lines that I take financial hardship for it, I risk my life for it. I was wearing a uniform while I was making that film – sometimes with a Free Syrian Army flag on my arm – to make it clear that I’m not a journalist. The consequence of that could have been that, if I’d have been captured, I would have been tortured to death.