This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Jack Cameron.
Enemies of the State (2020)
Director: Sonia Kennebeck
Starring: Paul DeHart, Leann DeHart, Joel Widman
The world seems to have an insatiable appetite for true crime stories. Documentaries and docuseries which delve into some of the most unpleasant and mysterious acts of human behaviour are almost never-ending, as is our curiosity as we consume reams of evidence trying to get at that ever-elusive truth. Interestingly, for such a modern phenomenon, there hasn’t been much attention given to internet crimes, online espionage or whistleblowing. With the exception of the Academy Award winning Citizenfour (2014), which still remains the high watermark, there haven’t been many attempts to make sense of the subject. Perhaps, as new documentary Enemies of the State proves, once criminal activity moves online it becomes very difficult to understand exactly what happened.
From the offset it should be noted that it’s not entirely accurate to describe Sonia Kennebeck’s Enemies of the State as a true crime story, mainly because the film itself seems to be ambiguous about whether or not there has been a crime committed at all; or what the nature of that crime may even be. Certainly, something has happened and the film tries to grab our attention by opening with an account of the DeHarts (Matt and his parents Paul and Leann) fleeing from their Indiana, USA home to seek asylum in Canada. Kennebeck uses a combination of talking heads and re-enactments to tell the story – similarly to The Arbor (2010) and Notes on Blindness (2016), the re-enactments take real recorded audio and have actors, as stand-ins, lip-sync the dialogue. It’s an effective way of humanising the otherwise absent main subject rather than trying to create his character through old photographs and footage. However, this is also a dramatic device that when filmed as it is – with David Fincher-esque cold, grey cinematography – does raise the question of whether the story is as dramatic as the film is telling you it is. Plenty of documentaries have turned in some of the most shocking pieces of drama using only the real primary evidence.
Opening with Matt’s asylum trial we get filled in on his background. He was a pioneer of the online group Anonymous and had since gone on to become a server manager for WikiLeaks. Prior to he and his family fleeing, Matt came into possession of some evidence from WikiLeaks that could incriminate the US government. Despite never releasing the evidence, nor even telling anyone what it contains, Matt claims that he is in danger from the FBI. He has been charged with creating and possessing child pornography, which he denies, claiming it was planted to discredit him. This splits his case (and the documentary) into two possible narratives: that he intended to blow the whistle but had to flee from the US government first; or, that he is guilty of the charges laid against him and he’s trying to escape.
The first half of the film is unquestionably trying to make you feel sympathetic towards Matt. Stories of illicit behaviour from the FBI and CIA are all too believable, plus the film does provide some evidence which suggests he was at least detained by the FBI if not tortured. Most of the talking heads are supportive of Matt and what they believe is his controversial but admirable fight for free speech. His main detractors (US prosecutors and the detectives investigating his child pornography charges) initially appear to be pig-headed suits with a very binary understanding of right and wrong. Yet, the lack of smoking-gun evidence (on either side) is notable. Because it’s a case of possible espionage, any documents that back Matt up are near impossible to find.
This is where the film’s subject takes a shift. Matt’s story reaches a standstill as he awaits the result of his trial and the film turns its attention to the nature of truth. There is a genuinely interesting idea being presented here of how truth can be invented – when living through the present moment, especially in an increasingly complicated online world, it is impossible to truly know something – but this is strangely only introduced towards the end of the documentary. Having spent so much time learning about Matt from his supporters and his family, this new perspective doesn’t feel like a twist, but more like we’ve been led down the garden path. It makes for an undeniably disappointing ending, especially as there was an interesting discussion to be had here if the filmmakers had chosen to present it as a discussion rather than an idea floated at the conclusion.
Enemies of the State simply cannot escape the ambiguity of its own subject. While it introduces an interesting idea, it doesn’t give it enough attention, and instead dedicates a chunk of its run time to creating sympathy towards a character who may or may not be responsible for some very abhorrent crimes.
Written by Jack Cameron
You can support Jack Cameron in the following places: