I went on my first and only trek in my life, back in 2016. A person who regularly goes mountain climbing would find that trek rather easy, but for a non-adventurous person like me, it was quite a daunting task. Some parts of it were really scary. But the feeling of pulling it off was unparalleled as well. I will probably never go on another trek again, but I am forever going to cherish that particular moment of reaching the top as one of the most thrilling and satisfying moments of my life. The reason I am bringing it all up here is the new Netflix documentary Camp Courage. At its core, it is essentially the story of a little girl, all about ten, going on a camping trip. However, it is much more than that.
The little girl happens to be Milana, who went on this camping trip in the Alps back in 2022, with her grandmother. At the same time, the Russia-Ukraine conflict was raging on. Russia had already invaded Ukrainian soil. The Ukrainian people were fleeing from their own country, to save themselves from the wrath of war. Milana and her grandmother, Olga, were refugees who managed to flee to Austria. The camp they were heading to was being run by one Nathan Schmidt, a combat veteran. Schmidt had been on more than one tour in Iraq. His organization, Mountain Seed Foundation, took it upon themselves to arrange these camps for children (and also their guardians) in order to form camaraderie as well as an act of resilience.
This is an undeniably wholesome thing, but the question that might come to some of your minds is: is there enough content to make a documentary out of it? And the answer to that from my side would be a rousing yes. It does happen to be one of the shortest documentaries that I have seen, as it stands at only thirty-three minutes. But director Max Lowe does manage to convey a lot of things through it. It is an anti-war statement, an inspiring tale of a physically challenged kid, and also a story of hope. Lowe himself is an adventure nerd, who has already proven his mettle in the fantastic, deeply personal 2021 documentary Torn, where he explored the story of his own father’s death in a tragic mountaineering accident. Compared to Torn, Lowe’s latest work appears to be much different in tone.
What makes this little nibble of a documentary so big and special is the fact that Milana lost both her mother and one of her legs when she was about three. Long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a very unfortunate missile attack killed as many as thirty people in Mariupol, the Ukrainian city that is considered to be a rebel territory due to the large number of people speaking the Russian language. One of the victims on that day, January 24th, 2015, was Milana’s mother, who had the misfortune of taking her daughter with her to work. The little one did survive, and from there on, Olga started to take care of her. We can imagine how hard it must have been for Olga, who had to deal with the loss of her daughter while making sure her granddaughter, who had already suffered so much at such a young age, remained okay. Looking at Milana walking fine, wearing her prosthetic leg, you do feel the triumph of Olga.
Milana doesn’t have it easy at the camp, though. Even with friendly people all around her, including her loving grandma, she freaks out at the sight of the mountain. She struggles to find the courage to do the climbing like the other kids and breaks down. Over the next few days, she further isolates herself at the camp. Olga finds it hard to help her granddaughter, but the other guardians as well as the Mountain Seed Foundation employees reassure her by telling her that Milana’s behavior is perfectly normal, as this is exactly the kind of thing a ten-year-old rebellious kid would do. It is actually nice that the documentary makes it a point to show the audience this particular footage of this woman explaining how Olga is Milana’s “safe place,” where the little child feels comfortable enough to throw her tantrums.
Camp Courage hits you really hard when you see Nathan candidly speaking his heart about the ill-effects of war. Watching him tear up while talking about how he had robbed so many kids of Iraq of their childhood, and now his only goal in life is to give war-torn kids like Milana a semblance of childhood, makes this documentary really special. Thanks to Nathan and the other employees of Mountain Seed Foundation sharing a similar goal, Milana finally manages to find all the courage she needs. Nathan plans a day full of relaxing activities, which should come easy for Milana, and that works out wonderfully. Spending her time with such loving people all around gives the little girl confidence, which eventually helps her to climb up the mountain, the very thought of which scared her only a few days ago. Seeing Milana smiling after reaching the top and Olga all happy and content was the whole point of Camp Courage after all.
It is probably a mere coincidence that Camp Courage happens to premiere at a time when a rather unfortunate political conflict is going on between Israel and Palestine. Bombs are being dropped on cities, civilians are turning into casualties, and things are getting worse day by day. War, as someone like Nathan would say, never solves any conflict. It only damages us and gives us scars. Camp Courage fittingly ends with Olga talking about her wish for a war-free world, which naturally ensures a bright future for all the children, including her granddaughter. Whether you watch it or not is completely up to you, but the relevance of something like Camp Courage in the current context is undeniable.