Semper Fi: Always Faithful , Rachel Liebert and Tony Hardmon’s affecting if imperfect exposé of water contamination at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, takes its title from what the Corps website calls “more than a motto — a way of life.” Some life. From 1957 to 1987, the USMC exposed nearly one million people to toxic cleaning agents in Camp Lejeune’s drinking water. Then the Corps tried to cover it up. (Watch the trailer below.)
Following a cohort of the victims as they fight back, Semper Fi , which won the Best Editing — Documentary award at the Tribeca Film Festival, is at once family portrait, journalistic account, and environmental missive. It’s a somewhat ungainly mix that diffuses its power. Too much explosive information comes on title cards, as though, in an effort to avoid ostentation, the filmmakers erased the visual style altogether. But in an era when too many have made war from comfortable armchairs in Washington, the film puts a courageous human face on the question underlying all the facts and figures: what happens when a military sabotages its own soldiers?
Those faces are lined with regret, and they answer the question with a resounding sense of injustice. It’s the intimate moments of Semper Fi , not its statistics, that moved me. The numbers are staggering — for instance, 130 military sites in the country are deemed contaminated — but they’re words on a black screen. There’s no rage in them. Instead watch Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger (pictured above) relate the story of his daughter Janey’s terrible last days battling leukemia, or hear former Marine Denita McCall read her prognosis aloud at the kitchen table. Juxtaposed with the canned statements of USMC representatives, these tales gather to them an undeniable power; such stories give average citizens a voice. “We are not numbers in a study,” says a woman whose newborn son died to a public hearing of the National Academy of Sciences. “We are human beings in a great tragedy.”
The human quotient overcomes the film’s flaws, because the personal histories, such as McCall’s, belie the central meaning of semper fidelis — that we’re all in this together. Her unnecessary death from cancer, in the middle of filming, shows just how cavalierly the Marine Corps neglected its supposed way of life, all while she, Ensminger, and countless others upheld their end of the bargain. Watching Semper Fi , I was reminded of another soldier and another Latin phrase, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori . “It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.” The poet Wilfred Owen, writing during World War I, called it “the old lie,” and he was right. It is a lie, especially when your country is what kills you.
Semper Fi: Always Faithful runs August 26 through Sept. 1 at the IFC Center in New York, and from Sept. 2 through Sept. 8 at Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.
[Trailer courtesy Rachel Liebert via Vimeo; photo via indieWIRE]