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DVD Review: ‘Camp Victory, Afghanistan’

★★★☆☆

Camp Victory, Afghanistan (2010) focuses on one training camp in Afghanistan, the titular base where recruits of the Afghan National Army are being trained by members of the US National Guard into becoming soldiers. The Americans have an unenviable task on their hands; the men they train are plagued by disobedience, misbehaviour and even in some cases, they are Taliban traitors.

Like all good documentaries, Camp Victory, Afghanistan zeroes in on a few choice stars, and along with some US officers, the true hero of Camp Victory is undeniably the veteran Afghan officer, General Sayer, a gruff, battle-hardened war veteran with an anecdote for every situation, a weary outlook on his country’s future and an impressive air of cold authority.

Sayer is a terrific find. He joined the army at 13 and remained in it throughout his country’s turbulent history – even when the Soviets invaded in the seventies, Sayer stayed loyal to the military but acted as an secret informant for the Mujahideen, the guerrilla opposition to the Russians, helping his supposed enemy with locations and movements of the army. (He stresses that no Afghans were ever put at risk.)

Sayer’s new US friends listen to this particular anecdote with amazement and surprise, particularly since we are shown one sequence when a much-loved member of the US team is killed in a firefight – owing to the American location given away by some of the Afghans they’re supposedly training.

The Afghan general and his unusual, burgeoning relationship with the American invaders proves the most engaging element of Camp Victory, Afghanistan. Elsewhere, it falls a little short, lingering too long on uninteresting minutiae of the training process, sometimes lending it a strangely bureaucratic edge.

And director Carol Dysinger touches on the political and historical dimensions of the story but can’t make her mind up. Clips of successive US Presidents, from Carter to Obama via both Bushes, offering statements on their varying involvement in the country, are interspersed with Sayer’s own personal account of the conflicts. But that’s as far as it goes, leaving a little something to be desired, not to mention providing a heavily US-centric perspective.

Camp Victory, Afghanistan thus manages to be neither broadly exhaustive nor overwhelmingly intimate. There are now numerous other documentaries about the war, and the feeling is that a defining take on the conflict can be found elsewhere. You don’t doubt the effort or risk undertaken to produce the footage, though – apparently over 300 hours were shot, during a period of four years. And occasionally, a golden moment is captured. To see tough-as-nails, balls-of-steel US military officers openly weeping as they say their farewells to Gen Sayer, embracing each other like family, is quite a sight.

John Nugent