One could, I suppose, be forgiven for expecting that a documentary on the Iraq war composed entirely of video footage shot by soldiers directly involved in the long, slow roll toward Baghdad would more often than not resemble the unholy mess of the war itself, given that a change in administration and an ostensible shift in public opinion regarding its necessity have resulted in few real signs of light to signal the end of a long, dark tunnel. The highest-profile film to really approach taking a look at what being at war in Iraq is like for the soldiers was Gunner Palace (2004). Ed Gonzalez, writing in Slant magazine, praised the film for showing “the horror of people gripped by fear of American troops charging into their houses” balanced by views of “(American) soldiers playing with young children and helping an orphan boy who is hooked on sniffing glue,” in essence “showing us both the heroes and the schmucks.” But the documentary was also heavily criticized in some quarters for directing its anger at the Bush administration’s deceptive tactics in justifying the war at the ones most powerless to do anything about it—the soldiers on the front lines. Ken Tucker, writing in New York magazine, went so far as to wonder if the filmmakers, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, “were like the people who used to spit on Vietnam veterans when they returned home.” He decried Gunner Palace as “a portrait of self-pitying rowdies” lacking the context and distance “that might make the soldiers’ behavior seem like what it is: the natural reaction of kids who happen to have guns, blowing off steam,” concluding that “the movie is a narrative mess… (and) too often makes the grunts look like mean slackers—precisely the opposite, one presumes, of what was intended.”
And certainly Brian De Palma’s Redacted (2007), a fictionalized story of the rape of a 15-year-old Iraqi girl by American troops told through “found” footage and blog entries, was even more controversial, too didactic and unfocused for some, whereas others praised it for its anger and immediacy. Through its faux-documentary anti-style it purposefully capsulized the divergent and contradictory attitudes toward American fighting men that Gunner Palace seemed to leave open to personal interpretation, but it was by no means intended to present an objective, unvarnished look at what life is like for U.S. troops under fire.
Nor, truly, could Severe Clear (2009), a new documentary written, directed and edited by Kristian Fraga for Sirk Productions (a company presumably named for a director who couldn’t have less in common with this film’s raw aesthetic). First-person objectivity, however fragile a concept, is the film’s seductive hook, and it is the narrative construct around which Fraga assembled the multiple hours of chaotic footage given to him by Marine First Lieutenant Mike Scotti, who documented his each of his company’s steps, from the 40-day ride to the Persian Gulf on the USS Boxer, all the way up through Nasiriyah and Al Kut toward "the crown jewel" of Baghdad. It is immediately clear that first-person will be the movie’s perspective—Scotti introduces the film in his room and sets up the basics of his initial voyage with equal parts anticipation and trepidation, but it’s all framed with optimism and enthusiasm. (Scotti ends the opening segment with a Darth Vader imitation hissed from underneath a gas mask.) However, it’s Scotti’s voice on the soundtrack just before this piece that more accurately frames the more subjective journey both he and the viewer will go on toward a greater understanding— which includes the fathoming of unexpected moral conundrums—about both the nature of the men who willingly put themselves in harm’s way and of war itself. For Scotti, a truism of Marine life is the value of friction, “the force that makes the easy difficult and the difficult impossible,” a force which also dictates that war must inevitably gravitate toward chaos, uncertainty and disorder. It is with certain gravity and a distinct narrative power that Fraga has constructed Scotti’s footage into a great document of war which embraces those moral conundrums as signposts toward the deepening of understanding. There is a welcome complexity to Fraga’s filmmaking (and to Scotti’s sketches of Marine life) in which clarity of purpose is born out of confusion, in which the questions raised from the Marine’s experience rise above the initial anxious excitement and eventual stench and exhaustion to paint a meaningful portrait of combat reality. Severe Clear traces the landscape where verisimilitude and factual allegiance explode into the uncharted territory exploring the tension within men’s souls.
Certainly, as you would expect of a movie composed of soldiers documenting themselves (the mini-DV camera operated by Scotti is occasionally handed over to one of his buddies), the off-the-cuff references to past war films is inevitable. One soldier comments on how the helicopters flying around remind him of Apocalypse Now. The footage itself, particularly during the march toward Baghdad, in moments of forward movement and an agonizing period when the military planners call a pause in the action, most often recalls Full Metal Jacket, but never so explicitly as during a montage of exercises staged on the aircraft carrier taking the men toward their dusty destination when Scotti defines what it is to be a Marine (“All the clichés are true”) and confirms that the Marine’s closest relationship is with his weapon. (Fraga even scores the sequence with Beethoven to cement the Kubrickian allusion.) And though the soldiers themselves may not have been aware of it, Fraga certainly seems to have recognized a link between the documentary footage and another potent fictional meditation on violence—at one point during a lull in the fighting a group of soldiers sit watching and laughing as a swarm of ants attacks a lone scorpion, a real-life image here reflecting the metaphorical one preserved by Lucien Ballard and Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch.
There is also an abstractly horrifying sequence early on, when the bombs and rockets have begun flying in earnest, in which the Marines observe far-off explosions with the kind of juvenile enthusiasm that accompany a particularly juicy video game, a fact that Scotti, and presumably his buddies, are all too aware. As the rockets light up the darkness of a desert night, the soundtrack is filled with cheers—“What’s really cool is that… that’s really war,” one Marine is heard to say, “People are fucking dying for real! That’s fucking awesome, the coolest thing ever!” But Scotti and Fraga don’t leave the comment just lying there to be caressed and amplified by our easily accessed sense of superiority. Scotti himself jumps in on the narration, both to sympathize and to contextualize: “For me this was payback, revenge for 9/11, but it feels like videogame death from a distance.” And later he illuminates on that distancing—it isn’t born of ignorance so much as a strategy for survival: “Out here these dead people are just numbers on a grid, and that’s the way I want it to be. Maybe someday I’ll see something different. But not today. All I see is a job well done… That’s just the way it is.” With the addition of these voiceover observations, which are made most valuable by Scotti’s refusal to deny to himself even the most ugly of personal emotions, Fraga transcends the voiceover’s typical function of filling in or underlining the obvious and gives us glimpses into the heart of a solider whose understanding of why he’s where he is seems to mutate by the hour.
But for all of its documentary immediacy, the movie Severe Clear most superficially resembles (and certainly speeds past in its intimacy and depth of consideration of the soldier’s interior world) is the recent Academy Award-winner The Hurt Locker. Several sequences (including one in which two barely visible, dark figures on the roof of a building are identified as possible snipers) seem to directly connect to Kathryn Bigelow’s and Mark Boal’s dusty, hard-boiled narrative. Both movies share the soldiers disdain for the arid landscape-- Scotti complains early on that “The initial impact and beauty (of the desert) has been replaced by a intense hatred of all this sand”—and a palpable sense of fear and futility of fighting, especially in an urban setting, an enemy who is often indistinguishable from the citizenry that surround him. The fatal shot could come from anyone, anywhere, anytime. However, Fraga’s film does Bigelow’s several degrees better in the way that Scotti’s presence, in the footage and as our guide along the ever-shifting moral pathway the movie navigates, fleshes out what we’re seeing. Bigelow’s film was expertly crafted, even if her shaky-cam approach paradoxically seemed to take weight away from the film as a whole-- a certain degree of aesthetic distance-- a cooler camera, perhaps-- might have been beneficial in this instance in drawing the audience further in. (I experienced the cinematography in The Hurt Locker, ironically, as an insistent reminder that it was just a really well-made movie.)
Fraga, on the other hand (and it must have been a Herculean task), finds his way into this footage through Scotti’s patient voice, but also by understanding that a coherent portrait of battle is impossible—it is the glimpses of sensation, of horror, of fatigue, of determination, of rowdy behavior—that tell the true story. Seeing battle up this close, watching men struggle with cheap, badly constructed equipment, or against a blinding sandstorm that that confounds effective battle planning and makes even the simple act of trudging t the outhouse a laborious, multi-soldier affair, it is impossible to gain an understanding of how even and efficiently operated force could carry own complex military strategy successfully under such conditions. It’s as if Fraga, in compiling the clashing, unstable video images from Scotti’s camera, were showing us a pointillist painting of war, only from the position of standing three inches away from the canvas—a clear understanding is impossible (which is reflective of the position of the soldiers amidst the combat zone), while the sensation of chaos, of uncertainty, of inevitable friction remains. In this way, Fraga creates an aesthetic justification for the use of this kind of footage, expertly paced and edited as it is, in a way quite unlike any other film has up to now. Yet there is always Scotti's voice to give us that probing, pained look inside, the important interior perspective on the global picture.
Severe Clear shows you things you never wanted to see. At one point, in the aftermath of an awful incident in which an innocent man and his daughter are gunned down by American soldiers who have mistaken them for enemies hiding IEDs (improvised explosive devices), one voice—it might be Scotti’s-- can be heard to exclaim, “God, I can’t wait to get the fuck out of this place.” We don’t see the incident itself, just the evidence, which is too horrifying by itself, but again, Scotti’s voice is there to focus our minds not just on the ghastly images captured by his camera, but on how this latest incident in an ever-increasing catalog of nightmares, is scrambling his initial motivation to fight and reinforcing the everyday aspect of the horrors of war: “When the frightened man lifted his daughter out of the car, her brain fell out of her broken skull onto the road. The finality of it all was so confusing. Not sure why, but I buried the girls’ pink sandals near her body. Just seemed like the right thing to do.” In this unflinching sequence, and in its portrait of American soldiers as rowdy, profane members of a fraternity of fighting men whose swagger and self-assurance is hollowed out of them with every mile they creep toward Baghdad, Severe Clear earns the badge of honor bestowed by its rather oblique title, a military reference used to describe a sky that is so bright, so blue, so cloudless, that functioning without sunglasses is not an option, and even then it may no be possible. The sky is so clear that you cannot see. Severe Clear honors its subject—the men who find themselves on the sandy battlefields of Iraq—by daring to suggest that clarity in understanding can only be achieved by allowing the expression of questions that such a terrible purpose inevitably raises. The clear blue skies above the Iraqi desert are too bright. Fraga and Scotti introduce the opacity necessary for those of us stateside to begin to engage with what the experience truly means to those who lived it. As Scotti says after he returns home, “Once you’ve experienced it, war defines who you are. I’m a Marine, and right now that all I can trust.” It could be that Severe Clear is yet the most valuable artistic document to arise through the dark clouds wafting over the history of this second Iraqi war.
(Severe Clear is currently playing at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills for one week only and will move on from there to screenings in Dallas, Texas, Houston, Texas and Salem, Massachusetts. For information on dates, locations and show times for all of those screenings, please visit the Severe Clear website.)