The new Iraq war documentary Severe Clear features footage shot by a Marine who lived it, putting the viewer into the chaos like never before.
Interview by Jordan Reed
When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, First Lieutenant Mike Scotti and the rest of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment were among the initial soldiers who entered the country and slowly pushed their way north towards Baghdad.
Scotti carried a mini-DV camera and shot hours of footage. Upon his return to the States, he hooked up with documentarian Kristian Fraga, who pared it down to craft Severe Clear, a rare firsthand account of the daily lives of men in combat. Consisting almost entirely of the images Scotti captured, and including portions of his diary and letters home (read by him), the film opens in New York on Friday and elsewhere in the following weeks. Men’s Journal spoke with Fraga to get his take on documentary-style filmmaking, the news media’s war coverage and how firefights make for shaky cinematography.
Men’s Journal: Many modern war movies are made with an emphasis on realism, with varying degrees of success. Were you trying to raise that level even higher with this film?
Kristian Fraga: Obviously certain films have raised the bar — Oliver Stone with Platoon, Born on the 4th of July, and Heaven and Earth, and then Spielberg set the new standard with Saving Private Ryan. Hollywood’s been going from Saving Private Ryan to District 9, and documentary techniques have almost become the standard in narrative filmmaking. By using these techniques, films are stripping away another layer for the audience to get into the reality of the situation. This film was another layer removed in that there was zero idea of filmmaking involved. I thought it would be interesting to take this raw, jagged material that was never intended to be a movie and actually put it together in a more traditional Hollywood way.
MJ: Do you think the feel of a District 9 makes it harder for audiences to differentiate a real documentary from a fictionalized one?
KF: I do. When our picture was playing in LA, somebody came up to me afterwards and said, Oh man, that was like a real movie. Which I totally understand because I think audiences have been trained to look at a documentary in a certain kind of way. And now audiences are getting that kind of feel in everything they’re watching, so it’s allowing people to give documentaries a chance as “movies” that perhaps they ordinarily wouldn’t. On the flipside, when TV shows are shot with a hand-held camera, desaturated look, and adding grain and jump cuts, it does desensitize an audience. And the news has footage that has gore and a graphic nature, so that kind of thing is no longer a hook.
MJ: Did you feel you had to differentiate your film from the war footage people are used to seeing on TV?
KF: I wanted to show the audience the stuff that they hadn’t really seen, to give the perspective of the guys who were down there, not the media pool that was following them. Because of digital technology, Marines can capture what’s happening at a level that has never happened in the history of warfare. Back in 1991 you couldn’t bring a video camera with those huge, clunky VHS tapes. These guys had these mini-DV cameras strapped to themselves or passed around.
MJ: Were you at all worried about showing images that were particularly graphic?
KF: Yes and no. It was an interesting balancing act. There’s only so much that people can take, and I didn’t want to do it for shock value. But this is what Mike trained his camera on. Mike didn’t have the luxury of film editors saying, You know what? Let me cut that out so you don’t have to see it. These images are burned into these guys’ heads. They’re going to take this to their grave with them. I felt the audience had to see it. And certainly the scene with the baby’s brain… As a filmmaker could I be more subtle? I guess. But to me there isn’t anything subtle about what these guys had to go through. I thought it was important to show the bodies.
MJ: At what point did you decide to incorporate Scotti’s diary entries and letters into the film?
KF: Once we decided we weren’t going to do any interviews. Originally we were going to do traditional sit-down interviews, and we shot for a couple of days and realized that was not the way to do the movie. Anytime we cut away from his footage it robbed the film of its power. To me this movie is a character study, and the emails and letters Scotti sent his family and friends — and more importantly the journal he kept — were an amazing opportunity to get into his mind. He was going to write a book about his experience. I had to use his writing and his journal because, to me, the movie is essentially the book he never wrote.
MJ: When battles were taking place, did Scotti have the camera attached to him or was he holding it?
KF: I remember sitting in the editing room and saying, Hold the camera steady! Forgetting that he’s fighting a war. A lot of the time he’d put the camera down, grab his gun and do whatever. The rule of the film for me was if he didn’t see it, you can’t see it. So you never see the “enemy.” Usually in a Hollywood film you’ll see people shooting — muzzle flashes, heads in the distance. But Mike said you really didn’t see that. You’d have these spurts of fire and ammunition and not be clear on what you see. There’s this one great scene in Born on the 4th of July where the Marines are standing there, and the commander’s like, Do you see it? Do you see it? And the footage looks very much like Severe Clear. And you see the guys struggling and saying, Yes sir, yes sir. But in actuality they see nothing.