Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010: 'Camp Victory, Afghanistan'

"The country is ours. The enemy is ours. The dust is ours."

Camp Victory, Afghanistan

Director: Carol Dysinger

Director Carol Dysinger's story of one lonely Afghanistan fort emerges as one of the most poignant films to have come out of this seemingly endless conflict. Dysinger captured about 300 hours of footage in Camp Zafar / Victory, an Afghan National Army (ANA) base in the western province of Herat between 2005 and 2008. The film that she culled from that footage shows the tour of duty for one Oregon National Guard unit at Victory, as well as the end of the tour for the unit they replaced, and the start for the unit that came after them -- through it all, the Afghans stayed.

The Americans work at the frustrating job of training the ANA recruits, a beaten-down lot who mostly grew up in Pakistani refugee camps and are looking for a paycheck (when not selling out their fellow soldiers to the Taliban). The recruits seem to barely even have the trust of their own government, and are sometimes forced to train without ammunition, shouting "Bang!" Officially, the Americans are there as "mentors," and are not to engage in combat. This distinction is sometimes arbitrary (such as when one of their own is killed in an ambush) and sometimes preposterous (particularly when they're expected to advise men like the weather-beaten old warrior Gen. Sayar, who's been in uniform since he was thirteen, having fought the Soviets and the Taliban).

One marvelous scene has Sayar calling a meeting of all his coalition "allies" -- the American National Guard, a unit of Italians also handling training, and some Special Forces guys who don't like to be told what to do -- and reading them the riot act for giving contradictory instructions and not keeping him in the loop as a commander. It's a rare kind of dressing down, and a welcome reminder to all the Westerners in the room that long after they've returned home, the war will still there for the ANA to fight.

Like many films about America's dual wars, Camp Victory, Afghanistan, does a fine job of relating the cultural dissonance and frustrations of the American soldiers put into harsh conditions against a mostly invisible, with not entirely trustworthy allies at their side. But unlike many of those films, Dysinger also explores the Afghan side of things, catching their wry asides as the Americans chatter on, oblivious and deaf to everything their translator doesn't catch. She also tracks the touching camaraderie that grows between the grizzled Sayar and one particularly earnest American, Col. Michael Shute. With fleet editing rhythms and a lightly handled touch of the tragic, Dysinger creates a portrait of how unlikely friendships can spring out of the worst conditions, and the best intentions are too easily ground down into the western Afghanistan dust.

Face: A Visual Odyssey (By the Book)

By turns alarming and awe-inspiring, Jessica Helfand's Face: A Visual Odyssey offers an elaborately illustrated A to Z—from the didactic anthropometry of the late 19th century to the selfie-obsessed zeitgeist of the 21st. Enjoy this excerpt of Face, courtesy of MIT Press.

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