There are over 7,000 miles between San Francisco and Kabul. At times, it seems like the distance between civilians and soldiers is just as vast. No number of news reports, political speeches or second-hand stories can ever really capture the intensity of life on the ground.
The military knows a completely different conflict from those of us at home. U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Owen Morris has taken action to fill that void. He has made a film that allows ordinary people experience the terror, joy, awe and sorrow of a grunt’s-eye view of war.
In 2009, Morris, then 26 years old, was deployed on a seven-month tour to Southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. A cinema major at SF State, Morris decided to find space in his bag for a few cameras to film his tour from a first-person perspective. The result is the most intimate possible portrayal of war.
The film, which is still deep in the editing process, is called “Removed From Reality.” It follows Morris and his fellow members of LAR 1st Platoon Alpha Company on the long road from his civilian home in Daly City across a war zone, and back.
Morris saw his deployment as an opportunity to show the world what the conflict is really like for those involved, without journalists as middlemen.
“Mostly you see the conflict from the point of view of the media,” Morris said. “Nowadays you’re capable, with digital production, to be on the ground, to be one of the guys and share that story without that filter.”
Morris, now a year removed from service, believes the filter of the media has created a chasm between public understanding of the war in Afghanistan and its reality. His goal, however, is not to redefine the world’s perception of the conflict, but rather to show the raw, human side of the men and women fighting it.
“I’m not advocating pro-war or anti-war or anything–I’m not even commenting on the war. I’m commenting on the experience,” Morris said. “It’s hard to let other people understand what goes on when a kid gets scared and shoots up a car full of a family. I think the best thing that we can do is show people and talk about it and bring it up.”
Corporal Brett Gelesko, a member of Morris’s company in Afghanistan, is featured in the film. He believes there is wide misunderstanding of a Marine’s role in the war.
“When people hear Marines they have a certain perception about, you know, maybe how bad ass they are or what they do as a service. People have those ideas of what we do out there,” Gelesko said. “In any infantry service there’s very raw ups and downs of being in that kind of situation.”
Morris used small pocket cameras strapped to vehicles, helmets, backpacks, guns–anything he could think of. The resulting footage is visceral. It’s everything reality TV wants to be. There’s a sincerity present that can’t be mimicked. It’s there in a soldier’s heavy breathing as his team storms a contested village. It’s there in the off-the-cuff humor of the boys in downtime. Through Morris, the viewer is not a witness, but a participant.
“I know some of the Marines were pretty annoyed … he was pretty persistent with questions and pictures,” Gelesko said.
For Morris, the film is more like a home movie than a documentary.
For a journalist focusing entirely on the project, to capture the footage in the film would be a logistical accomplishment. For Morris to do so, while also tasked with the life and death duties of being a soldier in a war zone, it is a remarkable achievement.
“We have giant eight-wheeled, almost like tank, vehicles. My job was to do a lot of the maintenance of those. I strapped camera to the inside and outside of stuff but I was splitting my energy between getting those cameras set up and functioning the way that they were supposed to and maintaining the vehicle,” Morris said. “It was a nightmare.”
The work has impressed SF State cinema department production coordinator Scott Boswell, who has helped Morris with some of his editing.
“[Logistically] it’s huge. It’s huge. Very few students are able to accomplish making a film, much less a full feature-length documentary,” Boswell said. “Very few people have the focus and the drive. That’s where Owen is different.”
Morris also had to concern himself with the rigid rules of the military. Typically, a soldier would never be allowed to capture footage such as this, let alone distribute it commercially. Morris built good faith by making a 20-minute film for his unit during a 2006 deployment to the tiny North African country of the Republic of Djibouti.
“They were OK with everything,” Morris said. ”I didn’t get stopped from doing anything I was doing. Everybody let me do pretty much whatever I wanted. Just so long as I was fulfilling my job.”
Morris may face hurdles when he does get to the point of releasing the film. According to Lt. Geseki of the Marine Corps Motion Picture and Liaison Office, Morris’ film must follow strict criteria in order to clear Marine protocols and be made available to the public. The strictest being “representing the Marine Corps message in a positive light.”
Though he believes the military will have their misgivings, Morris is confident that the message of his film will shine through to even the staunchest of authorities.
“I think they’re probably gonna be shit-scared when they see the trailer,” Morris said. “They’re probably gonna be scared when they sit through the first couple minutes of it, and then I’m hoping that by the time they get to the conclusion they’ll see what I’m trying to say. This is the experience of a lot Marines on the ground, in the front. That’s what our experience is like… it’s honest and I think the military will see that.”
Morris has lost weight. His face is visibly slimmer than the man in the early stages of the film: able, willing but not quite ready to go to war. He still curses like a Marine.
Morris isn’t hoping to change the world or the war, just a few minds.