TIFF 2020 Review: An Arrest Leads to Paralyzing Questions About the Reasons Behind It in Sonia Kennebeck’s Gripping “Enemies of the State”

“Matt DeHart is best described through stories,” says Josh Weinstein, a friend from high school tells the filmmakers behind “Enemies of the State,” remembering how he once dressed up as a secret service agent to accompany DeHart down the halls so his pal would look the part when he ran for student council president. After DeHart lost the election, Weinstein recalls there were dead fish placed inside the ceiling tiles of the room where the student council met, and though he declines to specify whether he knew DeHart was responsible, something certainly smelled funny.

That’s a burden for everyone who appears in the fascinating second feature from director Sonia Kennebeck, who likely stumbled upon DeHart’s unusual case while making her extraordinary first feature “National Bird,” charting the terrifying reach of America’s drone capabilities. In “Enemies of the State,” it’s an open question what DeHart may have known about ongoing military activities, having once been a member of the Air National Guard who was honorably discharged when he was diagnosed with a potentially crippling level of depression. But being unable to speak to it himself after he’s brought up on charges of soliciting sexually explicit pictures of a minor online, there’s no shortage of people willing to speculate, particularly his parents Paul and Leann who have a completely alternate theory on why charges were brought, believing that the embarrassing accusations were cover for the FBI to gain access to DeHart’s computer where he gained access to compromising materials regarding illegal CIA missions through the dark web.

“Enemies of the State” opens dramatically with the DeHarts leaving their home in Indiana for the Canadian border where they hope to gain political asylum for Matt, following a long pre-trial detention where he testifies to being tortured. You’d think from meeting his parents first, you’re about to see the story of someone who’s been wrongfully accused, but Kennebeck skillfully opens up the film to other perspectives, from those who know the family to those on the other side of the case, that are less there to counter Paul and Leann’s claims than to honor how the many unknowns of DeHart’s situation should prevent any rush to judgment about him, but also can be exploited quite easily to accommodate any number of narratives that may or may not be true.

Kennebeck, who has shown a gift at making the sheer density of the subject at hand part of what makes her work so engrossing, dives headfirst into the details of DeHart’s case that can be contradictory, but also perhaps all of a piece, and brings this ambiguity into its aesthetic, having scenes from Matt’s court appearances reenacted but seamlessly incorporating all the participants’ real voices so what you’re watching invites a small but significant degree of scrutiny over what’s real. Her collaboration with cinematographer Torsten Lapp continues to yield unusually dynamic imagery for a nonfiction film where traditionally American environments are recast with the isolating feeling of being part of a surveillance state — as Paul DeHart says at one point, “Just to think you know you’re being monitored is enough,” believing he’s been followed all the way into the middle of some nondescript woods in the middle of nowhere — but still the filmmakers always opt for the sober over the sensationalistic despite the truly wild claims that crop up in both DeHart’s prosecution and defense.

While careful not to lead anyone towards what they should believe, “Enemies of the State” convincingly gets at uncomfortable truths about the era we live in where institutions of all kinds are facing an erosion of trust, leaving a society predicated on certain standards of accepted facts and procedures unraveling at the seams, and whether or not DeHart was a predator or preyed upon by others, Kennebeck illustrates how the limbo he finds himself in extends to us all in arresting fashion.

“Enemies of the State” will stream through DOC NYC from November 11th through 19th.

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