Documentary filmmaking at its finest is the pursuit of truth. Filmmakers pull on threads, never fearing how that may fundamentally alter the story they initially set out to tell.
It embraces ambiguity and allows for characters, who do not neatly fit into archetypes. Sometimes viewers may see a glimpse of the filmmakers’ own bewilderment after they have exhausted all possible avenues for uncovering what happened.
“Enemies of the State,” directed by Sonia Kennebeck and released by Codebreaker Films, is the story of the DeHart family and how their son, Matt, became the target of a national security investigation by the United States government.
In 2013, the family fled their residence in Indiana for Canada. Matt, who was apparently involved with the hacktivist group Anonymous, said he ran a server called “The Shell” that was used by free speech activists. The activists offered mirrors for WikiLeaks as the government targeted the media organization while they published documents from Chelsea Manning and other sources.
Matt further claimed someone uploaded information to his server that exposed a CIA operation, which the FBI did not want revealed to the world. As a result, the family believed U.S. security agencies were watching their every move and out to persecute them. They sought refugee status in Canada.
There was an immigration hearing on August 20, 2014, and Kennebeck obtained audio from that hearing. In the film, actors reenact the proceedings, as Matt answers questions about a raid of his home in January 2010, his subsequent trip to Washington, D.C., to seek asylum at the Russian Embassy, and his detention by US authorities in August 2010 at the Canadian border.
Matt was transferred to Penobscot County Jail, in Bangor, Maine, and seemingly held without charge or trial and no access to an attorney for a number of days. He alleged torture and abuse at the hands of FBI agents. They questioned him about an “espionage matter,” and he eventually had a psychotic break. However, Matt was never charged with any national security offenses.
Reenactments of what happened in the jail help viewers imagine what likely unfolded. They also give the filmmakers a way to test claims around the FBI’s handling of Matt.
Authorities officially charged Matt with child pornography offenses that stemmed from computers and hard drives that were seized in the 2010 raid. Matt and his parents insisted the prosecutors had no evidence to back up the charges, and this was all a pretext to prevent him from releasing damning information.
Both Paul and Leann, Matt’s parents, are compelling subjects. Their proximity to Matt, as well as their Christian faith and backgrounds in the U.S. military, lead viewers to want to believe everything they say. The ordeal they endured is indisputably distressing.
Kennebeck interviews a police detective, who investigated the allegations involving child pornography, and an assistant U.S. attorney, who are predictably smarmy toward the DeHarts when commenting on their campaign to free their son. They are not concerned about the lengths agents of the U.S. government might go to suppress the release of information. Nonetheless, the law enforcement officials answer every question about the criminal charges against Matt directly. It is hard not to be convinced that Matt orchestrated a nasty prank or something more vile and repugnant.
Before releasing “Enemies of the State,” Kennebeck released “The United States vs. Reality Winner.” The film should not be grouped in with “Enemies of the State,” but its style and narrative construction are very similar. Our main characters in both films are parents, who never would have thought the U.S. government would come after their children.
The key difference between the two films—and why one should hesitate to review them together—is the truth is far more murky in Matt DeHart’s story. Incredibly, a defense attorney, who nearly represented Matt, went after Paul as someone who is unstable, dangerous, and a threat to his son. He contended Paul fueled Matt’s delusions.
Kennebeck and others involved in the film delicately approach the issue of whether DeHart’s parents are unreliable subjects. They never insult Matt’s parents or portray them negatively, and the audience is left to determine whether they are sources of falsehoods, merely in denial of reality, or totally credible.
Adrian Humphreys, a National Post journalist in Canada who published an epic series on Matt, and Gabriella Coleman, a renowned anthropologist and expert on Anonymous, offer some of the most illuminating insights into Matt. As Humphreys describes, “Almost every step of the story [emerged] from some secret shadowy world.”
“It was extremely hard as a journalist to find documented, accurate confirmable information,” Humphreys added.
At every stage, Kennebeck accounts for gaps in what is known, alerting viewers when individuals or agencies are mentioned that refused to participate in the production.
Who do we ultimately believe? Or more crucially, who even knows the truth? Every person who appears on screen could be speaking some semblance of the truth—about the alleged conspiracy, the criminal charges, the FBI’s abuse and mistreatment, the U.S. government’s freakout over Matt, and the campaign to defend Matt. Or they could all be missing key evidence, but none of that really changes the timeline of events presented.
Acclaimed Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who was an executive producer of “Enemies of the State,” says, “Truth isn’t handed to you. It’s pursued. It’s a struggle, and sometimes falsehood wins. That’s the ugly truth.”
"Enemies of the State" is available to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, Apple TV, Xfinity, and DirecTV. There will be more options for viewing at home soon. Follow Sonia Kennebeck on Twitter at @soniakennebeck for the latest updates on the film.