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Directors of Semper Fi: Always Faithful

These fearless filmmakers waded through one the largest water contamination incidents in US history, with a grieving father as their beacon.

Semper Fi


Tribeca: Tell us a little about Semper Fi: Always Faithful. How do you describe it in your own words?


Rachel Libert: Semper Fi: Always Faithful follows the story of Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, who was a devoted Marine for nearly 25 years. When his 9-year old daughter dies of a rare type of leukemia, he begins a relentless search for answers, which leads him to the discovery of one of the largest water contamination incidents in US history.


Tony Hardmon: The film exposes this horrible water contamination at North Carolina’s Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, but we also witness this dutiful soldier transform himself into the activist he never imagined he’d become.

Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? Did you have a personal connection to Jerry?


In early 2007, we were researching another documentary film when we met the sister of our main character, Jerry. 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 a gruff retired Marine on the mission of his life. We knew immediately that Jerry would be a compelling film subject. Ironically, it is the skills that he learned as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor that serve him well today. He has a very commanding presence and dramatic cadence to his speech. We were also intrigued by his emotional complexity. He has this very tough exterior, yet the pain that fuels his fight is just below the surface.


Tony: When we first learned about this situation, we were shocked that Camp Lejeune’s water was contaminated for such a long period of time (30 years), and that the Marine Corps still hadn’t notified former residents of their exposure to carcinogenic toxins. When we dug deeper and learned that the Department of Defense is our nation’s largest polluter, we knew that this was an important story with far-reaching repercussions.


Tribeca: This is such a powerful story, and one that will, unfortunately, come as a surprise to so many people. What do you want audiences to take away from the film? Is everyone counting on you to get the word out?

Nearly a million people were exposed to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, and only a fraction of them have even heard about the contamination. We hope that the film and the attention that is receives will help spread the word and more former residents of Camp Lejeune will find out about the contamination.  

I grew up as an Army brat, and I loved moving around the country and
 living on military bases. Life on base was always well-run and seemingly organize; everything we needed was available to us. I certainly believed that the places where my father was stationed were safe and secure, and never imagined anything unsafe could occur. I can really understand the sense of shock and betrayal the residents of Camp Lejeune are experiencing.

We want people to understand that this issue does not just affect military personnel and their families. There are currently over 130 military sites on the EPA’s priority list for clean-up. At some of these sites, toxins have spread from the military base into neighboring civilian communities.  


One thing that I realized in making the film was that the Department of Defense is behaving the way that most polluters behave. They often bury their head in the sand and hope that no harm comes from what they’ve done. I think the difference here is that we expect more from our government than from private industry. I hope that this comes across to our audience.

Tribeca: What’s the biggest thing you learned while making this film? Any advice for aspiring filmmakers?


Rachel: This is my second feature, and I have to say it wasn’t any easier than the first. I think that each film brings its own individual challenges. While experience helps, documentary filmmaking often leads you into unfamiliar territory. I think it’s important to go into a project with an idea in mind, but you have to be nimble and willing to adjust when the events you are documenting veer off from that idea.  

Making a documentary is not a sprint, it's a marathon. You’ve got to maintain your focus over a long period of time. In our case it was four years. You can’t allow the inevitable obstacles and setbacks to discourage you from getting the story completed. There will be tears involved. When you’re done crying, wipe your face and keep pushing forward.


Tribeca: What are your hopes for Semper Fi: Always Faithful at Tribeca?


This is an important national story, and we are excited to have such a high-profile launch pad for the film. We are eager to have a spirited dialogue with a New York audience. We consider this the beginning of our engagement campaign for the film.


Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?


Rachel: Alejandro González Iñárritu.


Tony: Fernando Meirelles.


Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?


Tony: I always recommend City of God, Babel, and The Constant Gardener to anyone who asks. For books, I’d recommend The End of Oil by Paul Roberts, and an old favorite, Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux.


Rachel: I love the work of the author Edward P. Jones, in particular Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children.


Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?


Rachel: “Never Satisfied” or “Just One More Question.”


Tony:  “Ramblin’ Man.”


Tribeca: What makes Semper Fi: Always Faithful a Tribeca must-see?


Rachel & Tony: When we started the film, we were somewhat cynical about how much one man could achieve when fighting the U.S. government. We hope the film illustrates that social change is possible, especially when undertaken by relentless and determined individuals.


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