April 24, 2011 / 2:12 PM / in 6 years

Tribeca documentaries examine bullying and toxicity

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Deadly poisoned drinking water at a U.S. Marine Corps base, and bullying in U.S. high schools are among subjects of documentaries aiming to strike a nerve at the Tribeca Film Festival this week.

Just short of half of Tribeca's slate this year are nonfiction films looking to score distribution deals and buzz in a genre that traditionally has been the strength of the indie cinema festival that runs in New York until May.

Previous years have seen documentaries premiere and eventually gain wider recognition, including "Taxi to the Dark Side" Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, who on Saturday premieres the sports-related film "Catching Hell."

But a number of U.S. documentaries this year examine issues affecting ordinary Americans. They include "Semper Fi: Always Faithful" which follows retired U.S. Marine Corps Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger's 14-year fight to expose contaminated drinking water at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base.

The death of Ensminger's 9-year-old daughter from leukemia in 1985 after he spent 11 years at the base prompted a struggle to find and publicize answers. A federal investigation revealed the presence of toxic chemicals in the drinking water at Lejeune between 1957 and 1987.

But Ensminger and others in the film, directed by Rachel Libert and Tony Hardman, say the Marine Corps failed to properly notify people who were exposed, some of whom died, and the government has not made health benefits readily available to victims.

"You would expect an organization like the United States Marine Corp to step forward and be a little more responsible and accept responsibility, more so than you would a private industry. And unfortunately I have found out that it's the complete opposite," said Ensminger, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 25 years.

STOPPING BULLYING

Pentagon spokesman Greg Wolf said Marine Corps officials have yet to see the film, but since 1991 have been "supporting scientific and public health organizations" studying "these issues."

He said the Pentagon had made it a priority to work to resolve the issue. "The loss of a child is devastating and Master Sgt. Ensminger has been tireless in his efforts to find answers," Wolf said.

"The Bully Project," follows several U.S. families devastated by bullying. The subject has been a staple of U.S. talk shows in the past several years with high profile suicides such as 11-year-old Carl Walker Hoover, who hanged himself in 2009 after being bullied by schoolmates in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Director Lee Hirsch began making the film two and half years ago and did not know "it would become this sort of hot button issue that it is currently," noting "perhaps the film will arrive at a moment it can really be received."

The documentary shows families from Texas to Oklahoma who have been victims of bullying, including two who have had sons commit suicide. It highlights inadequacies in schools and communities in protecting families, and a lack of education, such as encouraging bystanders to intervene.

Hirsch, who said some of his motivation came from his own experience of verbal and physical bullying while growing up, said social media had helped spread awareness of the issue. "It has become a different conversation, nationally," he said.

Besides US-focused documentaries, nonfiction films from overseas include "Give Up Tomorrow" about the case of Paco Larranaga arrested for the murder of two sisters in the Philippines in 1997. The film points to a number of holes in his conviction and suggests widespread corruption in that country.

In addition, 15 music-themed feature films are showing at Tribeca. Cinematic accounts of Kings of Leon, rocker Ozzy Osbourne and South African singer Miriam Makeba will also screen.

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