The American Filmmaker Who Became a Freedom Fighter in Libya
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 March 13, 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.
Matthew on his motorbike in Afghanistan.
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.