Carol Dysinger’s excellent, thought-provoking “Camp Victory, Afghanistan” observes the passing American parade from a fixed Afghan vantage: At a barren army outpost in Herat, a revolving door of National Guard soldiers arrive, “teach, coach and mentor,” then leave. A clear-eyed look at an irretrievably messy situation, the docu seems miles away from the life-and-death tension of a combat-centered film like “Restrepo” and will probably attract less notice, though as this timely chronicle demonstrates, the war to win the hearts and minds of Afghan soldiers carries its own perils and paradoxes.
Dysinger opens her film with an ominous Taliban proverb: “You have the clocks, we have the time.” Indeed, impatience rules the day for American advisers, easily frustrated by the impasse at which they find themselves; the situation is outlined with rare perspicacity by the pic’s de facto protagonist, Afghan Gen. Fazil Ahmad Sayar, a basset-faced veteran of three decades of war (he joined up at age 13). Vivid establishing shots of the Afghan recruits accompany Sayar’s concise assessment of the prevailing conditions: Eighty percent of the army is illiterate; the officers are clueless; the soldiers’ loyalty extends no further than their paychecks; and the government is rife with corruption, commands no respect and appropriates American millions earmarked for development, thereby sending jobless, unprotected Afghans over to the Taliban.
Dysinger picks up the action in 2005, during the last months of the Vermont National Guard’s tour, as Americans grapple with local troops who arrive late for maneuvers and fail to show up for literacy classes, as well as those who covertly sell ammo to the enemy and radio their positions to the Taliban. The fly-on-the-wall presence of Dysinger’s intently observational camera records the soldiers’ inflexible by-the-book commands, the new recruits’ nodding incomprehension and the seasoned commanders’ weariness.
Also captured are flare-ups, such as when a beloved medic is felled in action; though Americans are prohibited from direct fighting, they accompany Afghans on missions, and Dysinger films one such foray with handheld immediacy. The Americans’ anger is palpable and openly admitted, one Vermonter confessing his desire to kill every Afghan in sight.
A changing of the guard brings a contingent of Oregonians headed by Col. Michael Shute, an Army lifer from New Jersey, with a radically different approach. He refuses to mentor Sayar, a man whose war experience surpasses his own, instead patiently building trust and mutual respect. The quietly appreciative exchanges between Sayar and Shute provide fleeting glimpses of what a genuine American-Afghan alliance might produce and allows Dysinger, who accumulated more than 300 hours of footage over her three-year stint, to structure her docu from a subtly dualist point of view.
Tech credits are above average. Dysinger, who also served as d.p., contrasts the claustrophobic disarray of the army camp’s interior, where soldiers grin at the camera but disappear when things get tough, with the timeless vistas that stretch unbroken beyond the camp’s gates.