By Michael Slenske
In pilotspeak the term “severe clear” describes a rare set of visibility conditions with an almost infinite amount of clarity, typically appearing after stormy weather. As fate would have it, those conditions presented themselves on the morning of 9/11. “It allowed the pilots to line up with the towers very easily and sometimes severe clear is so clear that the horizon mixes with the sky and creates different elements,” says former Marine Captain Mike Scotti, the subject of a compelling new documentary of the same title, which premieres today. “It’s also an allusion to the idea of infinite visibility as a means to see what it’s like to be in combat.” Scotti should know. After spending 12 years in the Corps, with tours in Afghanistan and the initial invasion of Baghdad with Operation Iraqi Freedom, a vivid imprint of the war was left on this New Jersey native. Scotti recorded his unit’s 40-day voyage on the USS Boxer and the ensuing march to Baghdad as source material for a book he intended to write when and if he survived. “I bought my first camera early on in my Marine Corps career just because I knew I wanted to take pictures of stuff, and I just like to tell stories,” says Scotti. “I never planned to make a documentary film, otherwise I would have shot things differently.”
Pure of purpose when he started his deployment (armed with a picture of an old school friend who died in the World Trade Center attacks, which he intended to avenge in Iraq) Scotti, now 33, returns home after the invasion to find himself alone with feelings of disillusionment after realizing there were no WMDs—and perhaps no justification for the war. The only solace he finds is in his fellow marines and the mourning of his friend at Ground Zero.
Upon his return Scotti brought his tapes to NYU’s Tisch School to get them edited down so he could start writing. “I went there to find a student who could edit it cheaply, looking for a flyer on the wall where you can pull the tab off,” recalls Scotti. He was making a pitch to someone about the job in a hallway when an editor for documentary director Kristian Fraga overheard him, asked to see the tapes, and immediately called his boss after seeing the footage. “That’s how the whole thing started.” Directed by Fraga, who edited down 60 hours of footage from Scotti, which was shot and narrated from a camera and mic tied around his neck, and those of other Marines in his batallion, Severe Clear is an unflinching look at the grim realities of modern warfare amidst the majestic scenery of Babylon and other Iraqi towns. Interstitched with quick cuts, live and later-recorded narration from Scotti, and a disarming soundtrack that includes Blind Melon’s “No Rain,” this is a disturbing look into what men in war really think. Fraga explores the mental pivot in troops elated by bombing targets who ignore the mangled bodies of civilians in the streets, and the subsequent mental consequences brought on by the homefront.
“There’s tens of thousands of guys in Afghanistan and people aren’t even thinking about Afghanistan at this point. There’s a whole generation of hundreds of thousands of people who served and saw combat that are now back in the civilian world, and it doesn’t matter if they served in the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, or in 2003, or 2007 it’s all the same. The shit you see over there never leaves you, and you’re looking for that shared experience,” says Scotti, who is screening the doc for the Council on Foreign Relations next week. “Why I agreed to do this whole project was to show the world what it’s like to fight a war, it’s not my story or anybody’s story, it’s just so people have a better understanding of what veterans have gone through. It creates that shared experience.”