Right before U.S. Marine First Lt. Mike Scotti left for Iraq in March 2003 as part of the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he bought a video camera.
“I bought it right before I left San Diego,” says Scotti, a Colts Neck resident. “I think it was a Canon. I told one of the other guys to get the same kind of camera, so we could share a charger in case mine broke.”
Over the next three weeks, as Scotti and 1,500 other leathernecks from the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines fought their way toward Baghdad, Scotti and three buddies, also armed with cameras, were filming incredible things: artillery strikes, explosions, casualties.
That footage, edited down to a 90-minute feature called “Severe Clear” by filmmaker Kristian Fraga of Leonia and producer Marc Perez of Fort Lee, has been screened at the St. Louis, San Diego, Palm Beach and South by Southwest film festivals.
It recently got a “special mention for cinematic excellence” at the Rome International Film Festival, and it gets its New Jersey premiere at 8 p.m. Wednesday — Veterans Day — at Teaneck’s Cedar Lane Cinemas.
On that day, Scotti will also be getting the annual Lewis J. Selznick Award from the Fort Lee Film Commission.
“We thought this was an important story to tell,” says Fraga, credited as the writer, director and editor of the film, since it was he who shaped the hours of images into a coherent narrative.
Scotti’s footage came to the attention of Fraga and Perez through a New York University student who was familiar with it and was then working as an intern for Sirk Productions, the New York film production company they founded.
“This story really hasn’t been told yet,” Fraga says. “The movie does not argue about the politics of the situation, it’s not about bashing the president [Bush] — and it’s not for the president. We just wanted to allow the viewer into what these guys experienced.”
While Hollywood has produced fictional war films by the truckload and a few old-school documentary filmmakers risked their lives to film from the front, it’s only in the new age of cheap, lightweight cameras that soldiers could film their own stories.
And what stories.
“I hope audiences feel what Marines on the battlefield feel,” Scotti says. “All those emotions running through you. The first one is fear. The next is fighting for the brotherhood — the Marine on the left and right of you. You’re fighting for your country. You’re also missing your loved ones at home and battling the elements. All these things are swirling through your mind simultaneously while you’re literally fighting for your life. It’s a unique feeling.”
And just how, you might ask, was Scotti able to shoot video footage while he was simultaneously fighting on the front lines? Actually, he says, he saw a lot of the war through his viewfinder, which effectively — and with the blessing of his higher-ups — functioned as one of his unit’s binoculars.
“I had the camera around my neck the whole time,” he says. “I was calling in artillery and mortars and sometimes airstrikes. … That allowed me to stay focused on the enemy.”