Salem Film Fest was the last stop in the film festival circuit for “Severe Clear,” a documentary that chronicles 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom through the eyes of a Marine, before its official theatrical release in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Houston next weekend.
The evening showing last Saturday at CinemaSalem was followed by a followed by a discussion with the filmmakers about the documentary that was shot mainly on a few JVC handheld recorders. The film chronicles the 300-mile trek through the desert into the city of Baghdad in the first weeks of the war in 2003 as seen by First Lt. Mike Scotti of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Corps.
“Originally the recordings were notes I was taking for a book. I didn’t have a movie in mind, I think I would have shot it differently,” Scotti said during the question-and-answer session that followed the screening.
He never ended up writing what he intended was to be “the real story of soldiers at war.” Instead, after Scotti’s honorable discharge from the Marines Corps, he moved to Manhattan to enroll in NYU’s Stern School of Business.
Still holding onto his stash of mini-DV tapes, he became “sick of having to go through so many tapes to show my friends the cool parts, so I wanted someone to edit it down to one DVD. I talked my way into the Tisch Film School and ended up meeting someone who was doing freelance work for Kris.”
Kris was Kristian Fraga, an NYU Tisch School graduate, who was already considered an emerging filmmaker in the documentary genre with the work he had done with his own production company, Sirk Entertainment Group. After some initial conversations, Fraga took on Scotti’s 50 to 60 hours of raw footage and pared it down to a lean 93-minute film.
The movie is divided into chapters of Scotti’s intended text, which Fraga describes as a definite storytelling advantage: “The chapters became a great backbone on which to hang the narrative of the movie.”
The term “severe clear” is aviation jargon for conditions of unlimited visibility, which, to pilots in the air, proves to be contradictory. Pilots claim that on a day with these weather conditions, the cloudless sky is so blue and the unobstructed sun is so bright, it is almost impossible to see anything. On Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the fateful attacks on the United States, the weather was deemed “severe clear.”
And so for this documentary, whose subject wishes nothing more than to vindicate his country’s suffering fueled by “evidence” of weapons of mass destruction and “imminent threat,” a title meaning blinded” was the perfect fit.
Fraga wants to be clear that the film does not have a political message, although the subject of war cannot skirt the issues that compelled the United States into invasion. The film takes advantage of audio voiceovers of Cheney’s plea to Congress, Bush’s declaration to the nation and Rumsfeld’s scolding of the media.
The Marines depicted in the film seem absolutely to understand that they were completing a mission that would save the world from possible biological, nuclear, chemical devastation in connection to those who perpetrated the Sept. 11 attack.
Because the audience can feel and hear their earnest “Ooh-rahs,” the eventual realization after the fact that “there were no WMDs, there was no imminent threat” becomes especially devastating.
Scotti admits to a solid year of anger and frustration at the betrayal but concluded that “We went in and we did our job. I did my job well and I have to live my life here, not back there on the battlefield.”
Uniting vets and their communities
Premiering at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, which is the same festival to premiere Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq war drama, “The Hurt Locker,” currently up for nine Academy Awards, “Severe Clear” has shown to appeal to a much broader audience than veteran and active duty soldiers.
Through voiceover, BBC reporting and creative use of the handheld footage, the documentary has a clear narrative flow despite the day-to-day nature of the story and occasional moments of sheer visceral wartime horror.
Jeff Cox, a Salem Army reservist who works locally as a combat stress social worker with the U.S.’ Wounded Warrior Program, introduced the film at the Salem Film Fest and said the movie was the closest he has seen to a real-life portrayal of the armed services.
Hawthorne Associates CEO Christine Sullivan and her husband, company president and Army veteran of the 101st Airborne, John Neely, sponsored the film’s participation in the Salem Film Fest in conjunction with MerryFox Realty’s Betsy Merry and Peter Merry, a former Marine.
The Danvers-based organization Operation Troop Support had a donations and information table in the CinemaSalem lobby.
Scotti credits the film with creating a dialogue between veterans and their family members.
“People think that because they have watched the news that they have seen what their family members have gone through and the soldiers feel that disconnect,” he said. “When family members have watched this movie, they’ve said that now they finally can understand what it was really about.”
CinemaSalem owner Paul Van Ness closed the discussion with an invitation to join the filmmakers at Salem BeerWorks on Derby Street.
“It was an enjoyable film, an important film,” he said. “I consider it a tremendous gift.”
The filmmakers seemed to enjoy the experience.
“The Salem Film Festival is a haven for filmmakers. It’s run by a group who truly loves cinema which makes the whole festival experience really exciting,” Fraga said. “I mean, you spend years of your life working on a film and to have it presented the right way and seen by an audience who’s there to support filmmakers, was really special. I hope one day we’re invited back to their party.”
Scotti agreed: “It was by far my favorite U.S. film festival and I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend several. The ‘vibe’ at the festival was such a good one. Good people, good venue, good films and good conversations.”
Scotti hopes to be able to return to Salem soon and do some real exploring.
‘Severe Clear’ wins Salem Film Fest’s Jury Award
The Salem Film Fest awarded “Severe Clear” its Jury Award, chosen as the best film of the 2010 festival by six jury members who screened the film separately. In addition to a handcrafted trophy created by Salem artist Mik Augustine, the Jury Award winner enjoys a featured booking at CinemaSalem. For more information, visit cinemasalem.com.