SEVERE CLEAR’S KRISTIAN FRAGA AND MIKE SCOTTI
By Alicia Van Couvering
Severe Clear premiered at SXSW this week, five years to the day after the US invasion of Baghdad. Back then, Kristian Fraga was just one of millions, watching events unfold on cable news. First Lieutenant Mike Scotti was crossing the Iraqi border in an artillery tank, and he had a video camera.
Severe Clear is a chronicle of the Baghdad invasion culled from over 60 hours of this footage, edited from a pure first-person perspective to ensure that the viewer goes through an experience as close to Mike’s as possible. We first meet Mike and his unit in a desert camp, where they drink too much, curse too much, make gay jokes and fart jokes, shoot guns at stuff and otherwise prepare for war. It’s unsettling to see these men acting like such silly meatheads because, like the happy couple at the beginning of a horror film, you know what’s coming for them. Fraga deliberately used horror film techniques to tell this story, but despite three years of careful editing, it never feels like anything but Scotti’s personal story. Danger, bloodshed and chaos escalate by the minute as they make the battalion makes their way towards the capital, but Mike almost never stops filming. The story is framed by Scotti’s letters home, personal diaries and notes for the book he’s planning to write when he gets home.
The Iraq War is probably the most-photographed and most-filmed conflict of all time. Soldiers have taken thousands of hours of personal video and millions of pictures; we’ve seen the results of some of them. Severe Clear doesn’t preach or explain, and it can be hard to watch, but you ignore it at your peril.
FILMMAKER: Kris, can you talk about the process of editing all his material into a coherent story?
FRAGA: Well, I mean the key to making the film work, for me, was to tell Mike’s story. I wasn’t interested in just taking this very raw, intense footage and kind of throwing a movie out there and saying, “this is what they went through.” It had to be a narrative. There had to be something for the audience to really connect to. Because there have been a lot of wonderful films about the war, and actually wonderful books, but I felt that a lot of times after the first twenty or thirty minutes all you have is, “wow, it sucks for them to be there!” Although to be fair this movie was about the invasion more than the occupation, and most of the other films have been about the occupation.
FILMMAKER: And you have a built-in narrative structure: the journey from Kuwait to Baghdad.
FRAGA: That was the key. I felt that if I could capture to some degree the Mike that I had met, warts and all — his philosophy, his humor, the way he handled himself on the battlefield, the story about Beth and his connection, the personal connection… his whole journey, from the beginning of ‘hey, let’s just go in there, do our job, and get out,’ to the middle of ‘alright, geez, now we’re killing some of these people, not on purpose, things happen, but man this is kind of rough,’ to ‘okay now that we’re here, what the hell do we do?’ and then back to New York: ‘I don’t know if I defended my country but I’m a marine and that’s all I got to hold on to.’ That arc to me was the key to making the film work.
FILMMAKER: Personally, I went from being almost annoyed at Mike, and mystified as to how we responsibly sent these guys into battle, to being utterly shattered by the tragedy of the whole endeavor.
FRAGA: That’s really gratifying to hear. I mean, not that we want to shatter everybody and destroy their movie-going experience, but when we made the film the idea was to put the viewer in the shoes of these troops. To me it should be irrelevant whether or not you disagree with them or have any moral objections to war. It was more like, ‘how can we have you walk in their shoes, empathize with them, and raise a number of questions?’ And we realized that, you know, it’s not going to be a pleasant experience.
FILMMAKER: You don’t reassure the viewer initially that Mike or any of the soldiers have any insight into what they’re doing, or into the war in general – did you want the film to avoid a political point of view?
FRAGA: I felt that if you know what my politics are after watching this film, then I’ve kind of screwed up. I didn’t want to stand on a soapbox for ninety minutes, I wanted to tell Mike’s story. We never see Bush, we never Cheney, we never see Rumsfeld – we do see Powell, briefly, but we hear them. The idea was for the movie to be about the blue collar workers who actually have to get up in the morning and perform this mission. I can sit back in New York, watch the war on TV and analyze what’s going on with all the information and commentary I want. Mike is in another world. He’s the one actually doing it. These are everyday, American kids out there, who when they’re in the middle of the battlefield and they see two heads appear on a rooftop, they say, ‘we see dead people,’ because they’ve all seen The Sixth Sense. In the middle of a war, they’re betting money whether or not Jack Black was in Twister. This is their lives and their livelihood. It’s the stuff that you would never see on cable news.
FILMMAKER: Mike, do you feel that the film accurately reflects your experience?
FILMMAKER: What was it like, watching the edit develop, giving your footage over?
SCOTTI: My initial suspicion that [the film] was pretty much perfect was supported by Jeremy Davis, who was the Sergeant sitting next to me for most of the war. We went to dinner [after the premiere yesterday], and he was pretty shaken up, and he said, ‘you know, it was spot on.’ He especially connected with the ending – the last voice over, which says that one of the first things you feel when you get back [is anger.] That was very, very, very, important to me, that guys that were there, who were with me, were proud of the film and thought it was accurate. The [entire process] was actually pretty cathartic. I spent all this time getting everything down on paper, shoveling all this raw material over to Kristian so that he could get it inside my head. Making the film really helped me deal with these things.
FILMMAKER: Mike, something that was interesting to me is your persona in the film as a storyteller, your diary entries [employed as voice over] that start “notes for the book” – how important was it for you to record this experience?
SCOTTI: When I first bought the first video camera, I was twenty-three years old and a brand new Lieutenant. The times that we were living in, going to artillery school, going to the base school, graduation from Kansas, all these things, I thought, I’ll never do this stuff again. I have to capture it on film. In the Marines, we would hit places like Thailand, Australia, Kenya, so I just had a video camera like you would if you bring a video camera on vacation. When September 11th hit, we were the forward deployed marines to Afghanistan. When I got back, I showed the footage to some civilians and my family the footage after we got back, and I realized how powerful and hard-hitting it was. So, when we were gearing up to go to Iraq, I grabbed one of the other Lieutenants in my Battalion Jamar Baxel and said, “go get a video camera, because you’re going to want to tape this.”
FILMMAKER: It seems like this is the first war with so much personal video and personal photos taken by the soldiers.
SCOTTI: Well, when you think about it, the military is really an extension of society. You’re recruiting young marines that are eighteen and nineteen, right out of high school, the officers are right out of college. So you have the leaps in technology for digital capturing of images and a more technically savvy military, because these guys grew up playing video games and had camera cell phones, so it’s natural.
FILMMAKER: Do you see Lindy England / Abu Ghraib pictures as part of this?
SCOTTI: There’s the concept of “the strategic corporal,” meaning, that if a corporal (which is a mid-level marine) does something that’s caught on camera, it could change the strategic direction of the entire war. There are things that have happened in former wars like that, which were pretty bad.
FILMMAKER: Really, like what?
SCOTTI: (laughs) You should google it. If somebody takes a sniper shot and takes out a commander of the opposing forces, that’s going to shake things up – and it’s just one bullet, you know.
FILMMAKER: There’s a theory about the Abu Ghraib pictures [described in the book Men Who Stare At Goats and elsewhere] – that the photographs was their mission, and were designed to be used as psychological propaganda, and when they were leaked there was a top level conspiracy to deny that and pretend that it was just a few errant soldiers. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist.
SCOTTI: I am not either.
FRAGA: Nor am I. (laughs)
FILMMAKER: (laughs), OK, well, Mike, I have a procedural question, in terms of how you were able to film this at all. I’m surprised that the military allowed it, and also don’t know how you got footage during battle – did you tape the camera to your chest or something?
SCOTTI: First of all, I wouldn’t do anything that would have violated the uniform code of military justice. So if they had said, no filming, no video cameras, no pictures, then I wouldn’t have done it. I am not going to disobey orders. But, anyway, my job as artilary officer is to be an observer, looking through the glass to talk the rounds onto the targets. So, if we drop some artillery and it’s off a little bit, I adjust the artillery fires until they are where I wanted them to be. If I didn’t have the video camera in my hand I would have a set of binoculars in my hand, and I could do my job as effectively with a video camera as with binoculars.
FILMMAKER: That’s amazing. Those are such unique circumstances.
SCOTTI: I mean there’s times when I throw the camera down and have to do other stuff, you can see that in the film. I thought about it, I was like maybe I could get a helmet mount for my camera and like stabilize it, but I was too concerned with getting the equipment and the Marines all squared away to deal with that.
FILMMAKER: Because a lot war journalists talk about the psychosis of viewing violence through a camera lens, of the disconnect that occurs and the post-traumatic stress reckoning that inevitably follows. But that doesn’t sound like what you were doing.
FRAGA: No, that was actually what I was going through for the last four years, living with his footage.
FRAGA: There are moments in the film where he is actually being asked by his commanding officers what he sees through the video camera, when they’re pinned in a city. [The camera is zoomed as far into the distance as possible], and he says, “I think they’re flags sir, I don’t believe they’re personnel.” which I thought was so interesting. He doesn’t get reprimanded, in fact it’s, “What do you see?” That was just wild, to catch the reality that even through the video lens he’s being proactive and thinking, “okay, what information am I getting through this video camera.”
SCOTTI: That goes back to one of the basic tenets of being a Marine, is that you always, always, always need to maintain situational awareness. That’s the mark of a well-disciplined unit: they are always facing outward. Their weapons, their eyeballs, everything is focused on the enemy. So, if anything, [filming] enhanced my ability to focus outward. I would have been looking there anyway, but I am just doing it through a camera lens.
FILMMAKER: And yet, to get back to your persona as a storyteller, you do seem always to be working on the book, the film, the historical record…
SCOTTI: Well, it’s really like multi-tasking. When Colonel Meier – who was a phenomenal leader – when he says [on the eve of the invasion], “these people are waiting for you to set them free. The actions that you take are going to echo throughout eternity. You are a part of history.” You’re always thinking on all these levels. On a tactical level, I am trying to stay alive, because there is a tank on the other side of that house that’s ready to blow us away. On the operational level, I’m thinking that our objective is to seize the bridgehead at Al Quuf. And then on like on a more introspective level, on the higher level, you’re thinking, “Wow, I’m a part of history here.” And you start seeing that in the film where we’re in [the ruins of ancient] Babylon. You think of how many armies over the thousands of years have tried to conquer this city. War is timeless. There’s so many layers to it, you know.
FILMMAKER: So when you describe those introspective thoughts in voice-over during the Babylon sequence, you were really thinking about that when you were there? It wasn’t retrospective?
SCOTTI: Absolutely, absolutely. Everybody loves that part because it’s funny, like when you hear us say, “I thought this only existed in Led Zeppelin songs,” you know, “is Babylon all that crumbly shit in the middle over there,” I knew that Babylon existed at some point but it wasn’t really something that was ever on my radar screen. But when you’re there, I was like, “I am walking through the same gates as Alexander the Great.” That’s why war is what it is. It’s timeless.
FILMMAKER: Speaking of historical record, in the film you talk about the news crews and the media a little bit. How do you feel that they misrepresented the war?
SCOTTI: As far as the news coverage goes, I mean, they can’t be everywhere, and there are some places they can’t go, and they might have corporate responsibilities or biases. It’s never truly objective. If you’re involved in the actual fighting, you are truly objective; you’re just trying to stay alive.
FILMMAKER: Can you explain the scene in your film where you say you’re getting news about the war from the BBC?
SCOTTI: And when you think about being on a battlefield at a higher level of command, knowing everything that’s going on in the whole war is not really a priority. We are maintaining high situational awareness, in the areas that affect us from a tactical standpoint, like five blocks away. But as far as where the army’s divisions are or it’s not too important for the guys that are at the squad level, it’s irrelevant. And, there’s also the element of, you don’t want to risk everybody knowing exactly what’s going on, in case somebody gets overrun or captured.
FRAGA: …which is crazy because for me as a civilian, because I am sitting there watching CNN with all this information, connecting all the embedded reporters together and trying to make sense of it all, and the Marines who are actually doing it only see one little section of the situation.
SCOTTI: You know, when I finally was able to make regular phone calls home or emails or whatever as we got closer to Kuwait and flying home or whatever, ‘were you there when they pulled down the statue of Saddam?’ you know, the big famous moment. I didn’t know anything about it. And it happened like three miles away from where we were, in the U.N. building and I had no idea that it even happened, I didn’t know what the hell anybody was talking about.
FILMMAKER: I’ve never served in the military, so I’ve never done anything because I was ordered to, or without knowing what the larger context of it was, let alone put my life at risk. The mindset of a person in service is something I think your film vividly illustrates – that to serve is to relinquish the responsibility of your life over to someone else.
SCOTTI: Right, and that’s where the bond comes from, that’s why the brotherhood is so strong. It really doesn’t exist anywhere else, unless you start studying fire fighters or something.
FILMMAKER: What do you do when start to lose faith in the decisions, which appears to happen in the movie once you’ve invaded Baghdad, now policing an Iraqu people who suddenly don’t seem to want you there. What do you do when you lose faith in the wisdom of the authority that’s dictating your life or death?
SCOTTI: That’s not something you really think about when you’re there. You don’t have time to think about it. You reflect in short spurts, but you kind of file things away for later. If somebody’s wounded or killed, of course you’re sad, but you have to worry about getting through the next town, and the next city; I have to get this bridgehead, make sure that the machine guns are placed correctly, make sure that the targets on the map are related to the guns on the targets. So you’re worried about survival, and you just file all that stuff away for later.
FILMMAKER: You do seem to have a lot of forced downtime in the film, but I think what you’re saying is that even when you’re sitting around waiting for orders, you’re still in survival mode.
SCOTTI: Yeah, it’s not until you come back home that you reflect, really. They say that war is defined by long periods of boredom broken by short periods of terror, and that’s exactly correct.
FRAGA: Which I wanted to capture, but I thought that if we had long sections of boredom, it wouldn’t be good for the film.
FILMMAKER: I think you do capture it – and it’s something I’ve never seen, really – that they spent so much time just sitting there for days, roasting in the sun, covered in flies, with no information.
FRAGA: One of the first things that Mike said to me, which kind of governed the entire way I cut the film, was “You don’t know fear until another thinking human being is trying to hunt you and kill you.” That’s what kind of dictated a lot of the almost horror film techniques we use: going from quiet to loud, using sound and flash frame images. The ideas was always, to whatever degree a film could, put you in Mike’s mindset. There might be an abrupt cut, throwing you right in the middle of action, so that you don’t even get a chance to breath.