Just what did they know? And when did they know it? These are two questions that dominate much of the documentary Semper Fi: Always Faithful. The “they” is the U.S. government and more specifically the officials who administered the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base, located in North Carolina. The “what” is part of the mystery uncovered in this rich film likely to factor into the awards discussion as the year draws to a close.
The story concerns Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, who served his country for twenty-five years. He spent many of those years training recruits as a drill instructor at Camp Lejeune. When Jerry’s nine-year-old daughter died of a rare type of leukemia, he’s grief-stricken, struggling for years to make sense of the tragedy. After all, leukemia was virtually nonexistent in his family’s medical history.
Jerry’s search for answers led him back to the military base where he had felt safe for years while serving his beloved Corps honorably. What he uncovered was a terrifying secret that we learn is hardly a secret at all. The evidence can be seen from a tour bus, the same tour that touts the local Burger King as the most profitable in the country.
We learn early on that the water at Camp Lejeune is polluted. Given that the Department of Defense is reportedly the country’s largest polluter, this stands to reason. But getting the U.S. government to own up to the wrong and notify those affected proves a massive undertaking. Jerry’s quest assumes David vs. Goliath proportions, but he learns that there is strength in numbers as the long list of those poisoned by the contamination grows. The race is on to document the contamination as those with the answers succumb to cancer most likely caused by their ingestion of Camp Lejeune water. The heartbreak on display is humbling and the U.S. military’s cold and calculated response angering.
Shot on a variety of affordable video cameras, from the older HD standard Sony EX1 down to the classic Panasonic DVX100, Semper Fi has a very intimate visual look. And while the images take a backseat to the story (as well they should), the film is tightly put together, completely conveying its message in an efficient 76 minutes. This style of filmmaking should warm the heart of any aspiring documentary filmmaker, as it shows how a very important and personal story told with a laptop and a camera can find itself to the big screen, no matter how it looks.
Told exclusively from the point of view of the victims, Semper Fi: Always Faithful takes the cause of Jerry’s daughter’s leukemia as a given. And the evidence they present is strong. The U.S. government is shown in public meetings where the language used is so measured and dispassionate that it instills the viewer with a terrible sense of dread. (It feels like there is a massive lawsuit waiting to drop.) Such filmmaking from co-directors Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon is effective, mainly because it sets up an “us vs. them” narrative where the “us” is the little guy (and more specifically, a nine-year-old girl), and the “them” is a largely faceless bureaucratic machine. If there is a failing in this otherwise excellent documentary, it is that there is not a face to put with the wrong. No one member of the Camp Lejeune administration can be or is singled out as an uncaring monster. Instead, you get the general impression that the problem was systematic, a product of apathy rather than sinister intent. Of course, through the efforts of Master Sgt. Ensminger a bright light has revealed the inattentiveness and brought the victims at least some of the answers concerning the origin of the ailments that plague them.
Sometimes the answer to “how could this have happened to me?” is all that a person dying of cancer has to hold onto and can provide some comfort for mourning family members. For Jerry, whose daughter is long gone, it is a cold comfort. But the little girl’s life continues to be celebrated with pending Federal legislation known as the Janey Ensminger Act. Likewise, Semper Fi: Always Faithful represents another worthy monument to the legacy of a life senselessly lost.