Documentary Film Prize Recipient, 2012

Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon have been awarded the 2012 Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize for Semper Fi: Always Faithful, the chronicle of one determined Marine, Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, whose quest to understand the reasons for his daughter’s early death pitted him against the organization to which he had pledged to be semper fidelis, or “always faithful.”

Ensminger’s twenty-five-year devotion to the Marine Corps was disrupted when his nine-year-old daughter died of a rare form of leukemia. In his quest for answers, he exposed a cover-up by the Marine Corps of one of the largest water contamination incidents in US history. The water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where Master Sgt. Ensminger lived with his family while his wife was pregnant with his daughter, had been contaminated with toxic and carcinogenic chemicals for thirty years. It is estimated that as many as one million Marines and their families may have been exposed to this contaminated water. The Marine Corps were made aware of the contamination in 1980, but refused to officially notify the residents of the base until 2008, after Ensminger’s campaign brought national attention to the issue.

Semper Fi: Always Faithful is the story of a committed career Marine who leads a coalition of former base residents in a campaign to expose the contamination, against the very organization to which they had dedicated their lives. Many of those former residents who teamed up with Master Sgt. Ensminger and are profiled in the film are themselves sick with rare forms of cancer (such as male breast cancer), or have lost a child. It is also a story of political transformation, as an unexpected group of patriotic Americans finds their voice in a crusade against the largest polluter in the United States: the Department of Defense.

Ann Hornaday wrote in The Washington Post, “For profiles in pure courage, it doesn’t get more sobering than Semper Fi” and ABC News called it “the story of a man’s fierce determination to find out what happened and set it right.”

Filmmaker Rachel Libert was inspired to make this film when she saw the “emotional complexity” of the man determined to understand why his daughter died. She says, “The Department of Defense is behaving the way most polluters behave. They bury their heads in the sand and hope that no harm comes from what they’ve done.” And yet the perseverance of Ensminger’s group resulted in the Corps’ begrudging acknowledgement of the contamination, and in their effort to notify all the former residents of Camp Lejeune. Legislation inspired by Ensminger’s campaign and named after his late daughter was introduced in the House of Representatives in 2010; if passed, it will provide healthcare to Marines and their families sickened by the contamination.

The movie is produced and directed by Libert, director of Beyond Conviction and Undertaker, and Tony Hardmon, a veteran cinematographer who has filmed many award-winning documentaries. It was produced in association with Wider Film Projects (Producers Jedd and Todd Wider) and Chicken & Egg Pictures (Executive Producers Judith Helfand, Julia Parker Benello, and Wendy Ettinger).