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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon--'Semper Fi: Always Faithful'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the past month, we at IDA have been introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs through September 1 in New York City and through September 8 in Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to conclude this series of conversations, here are Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon, directors/producers of Semper Fi: Always Faithful.

Synopsis: As a devoted Marine for 25 years, Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger lived and breathed the "Corps." When his 9-year-old daughter dies from a rare form of leukemia, Jerry wants to know why. His search for answers leads him to a shocking discovery: a Marine Corps cover-up of one of the worst water contamination incidents in US history. With relentless determination, he spearheads a decades-long battle to make this information public and hold the Marine Corps accountable. Semper Fi: Always Faithful is a searing look at the military's betrayal of its soldiers and an emotional story of one man's transformation into the activist he never imagined he'd become.


Semper Fi: Always Faithful


IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Rachel 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 Hardmon: My father fought in Vietnam in the 1970s, 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.

IDA: What inspired you to make Semper Fi: Always Faithful?


TH: In early 2007, we were researching another documentary film when we met the sister of our main film subject, Jerry Ensminger. 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.
RL: When we first learned about this situation, we were shocked that Camp Lejeune's water had been 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.   

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?


TH: 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.  

RL: 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 and environmental and public health policy. Like many documentaries, 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.  

TH: Fortunately,  Jerry ended up achieving much more than we could have imagined. So I guess you could say that we overcame this challenge by being patient and waiting it out. We also made sure that we were mindful of the story that was unfolding before us, which isn't always the story you think you are going to tell.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

RL: 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 most of the facts 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 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 expert interviews.
TH: When we started the film, we were somewhat cynical about how much one man could achieve when fighting the US government. We came to realize that social change is possible, especially when undertaken by relentless and determined individuals, and we hope that's what our audiences take away from the film.

IDA:  As you've screened Semper Fi: Always Faithful--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

TH: When the lights come up, we see tears and outrage. It seems to be a very emotional experience for our audiences. We've had Jerry at a lot of the festival screenings, and the audiences go crazy for him.  

RL: Often the first question from the audience is, "What can we do?" When you make a film like this, you hope that it motivates people to act, but I don't think we anticipated how immediate and intense the reaction would be. It's been amazing and overwhelming.

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

RL: I love the work of Heddy Honigmann--in particular her film Crazy. Another favorite film of mine is Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann's Long Night's Journey into Day.

TH: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Brothers Keeper was an early inspiration for me, and more recently, Laura Poitras' The Oath.

Semper Fi: Always Faithful will be screening August 26 through September 1 at the IFC Center in New York and September 2 through 8 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2011 program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Semper Fi: Always Faithful in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for Semper Fi: Always Faithful in Los Angeles, click here.