Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger’s loyalty belonged to the Marine Corps for 25 years. But when his nine-year-old daughter dies of a rare leukemia, Jerry gives up all else to investigate the cause of her death. His exhaustive search for answers leads to a shocking discovery: one of the largest water contamination cover-ups in US history. Bravely determined to hold the Marine Corps accountable for the unprecedented number of cancer cases and deaths at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Jerry refuses to settle for the military’s dismissive response to the many victims buried under their dubious bureaucracy. Outrage, perseverance, and enduring patriotic duty drive Jerry to reveal this grave national issue before Congress and the American public.
Directors Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon present a timely and sobering personal story, shining a light on the military’s betrayal of American soldiers and their families. The film compels and empowers the viewer to demand the Department of Defense—America’s largest polluter, according to the film—to protect its soldiers and civilians from toxic environmental conditions at military sites across the nation. [Synopsis courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival]
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Tribeca Narrative, Documentary and Viewpoints sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]
“Semper Fi: Always Faithful”
World Documentary Competition
Director(s): Rachel Libert, Tony Hardmon
Producer(s): Jedd Wider, Todd Wider, Rachel Libert, Tony Hardmon
Editor: Purcell Carson
Director of Photography: Tony Hardmon
Composer: Ivor Guest
Responses courtesy of “Semper Fi: Always Faithful” directors Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon.
Two different backgrounds…
Libert: I’ve always been very curious about other people’s lives. As a kid I would use my father’s dictation machine to interview my friends and family members. When I was in high school, I saw my first documentary and realized that I could channel that curiosity into a profession. I studied documentary filmmaking at Boston University and have been making films ever since.
Tony: My father fought in Vietnam in the 1970’s and while he was abroad I would watch television news stories about the war. As I watched the reports from the field I developed a fascination with the correspondents and the photojournalists. I was intrigued by their profession and their adventurous lifestyle. When my father returned from overseas he brought back a new Super 8mm camera so that we could make home movies. From that point on I took control of the household moviemaking. Now I travel the world working as a director of photography making documentaries in other families’ homes.
One commanding film presence…
In early 2007, we were researching another documentary film when we met the sister of our main character. She told us that her brother was in the process of exposing a Marine Corps cover-up of a water contamination and she was looking for filmmakers to document it. We were skeptical, but she laid out this incredible story of intrigue, heartbreak and betrayal. It piqued our interest enough that we showed up in Washington DC two weeks later and met this gruff retired Marine. We immediately knew that Jerry would be a compelling film subject. Ironically, it is the skills he learned as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor that serve him well today. He has a very commanding presence and a dramatic cadence to his speech. Yet underneath that very tough exterior you can sense the pain that fuels his fight.
In many ways, the story of “Semper Fi” is a classic David and Goliath tale and it was this conflict and heroism that initially attracted us. When we dug deeper and learned that the Department of Defense is our nation’s largest polluter we realized that this was a much bigger story with far-reaching repercussions.
Making a big story small…
We wanted to tell the story of an environmental disaster from a very personal perspective. We were following a career marine who was transforming into the activist he never imagined he’d become. We looked at feature films like “A Civil Action” and “Erin Brockovich” which also tell an environmental detective story and a story of personal transformation. We decided to reveal the narrative through the eyes of our main characters. Information is presented as they discover it. This is particularly helpful when we need to convey complex scientific and public policy information. As our characters struggle to make sense of something, the audience begins to understand it too. We felt this would be more compelling than using traditional “talking head” expert interviews.
A change of pace…
Our past projects have been intimate stories depicting someone’s personal journey. Taking on the United States Department of Defense is not something either of us ever thought we’d do. There were logistical challenges in gaining access to the base and the Marine Corps and we also had to do a tremendous amount of research so that we could be well-versed in military protocol, environmental law, pubic health policy and the inner workings of Capitol Hill.
However one of our bigger challenges was that there was a lot of uncertainty about how the film would end. We knew what Jerry was fighting for but it was unclear how much he would be able to achieve and how long it would take him. Many contamination cases go on for years and end unresolved. We knew that if we ended up in the same place that we started it wouldn’t be very satisfying for an audience. That was a concern that nagged at us for the first few years. Fortunately, we picked a perfect time to film as Jerry ended up achieving much more than we could have imagined.
Hardmon: I’m currently shooting Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s forthcoming documentary “Detroit Hustles Harder.”
Libert: I recently created and directed a documentary series for Discovery/Planet Green called “Boomtown” about a small town in North Dakota in the midst of an oil boom. I’m now developing some other documentary feature and television projects and preparing to do an extensive outreach campaign for this film.