ENEMIES OF THE STATE (TIFF20) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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While the same might feel true of any moment in recent years, in the late part of 2020 – as the planet faces escalating political conflict, increasing national disasters and epoch-defining social, cultural and economic shifts due to the COVID-19 pandemic – it’s fair to say that the entire concept of “conspiracy theories” feel more ideologically weaponized than ever before. Be it climate change, child abuse, masks, immunizations, or good old-fashioned political backroom machinations by mustachio-twirling villains and angel-winged protectors, there seems to be a conspiracy to fit almost anyone looking for answers to things that in our contemporary moment simply seem otherwise incomprehensible.

It is into this environment that investigative journalist and filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck has released her third documentary, Enemies of the State, currently playing at the Toronto Film Festival. At first, her latest documentary appears to continue a fascination with military intrigue with a focus on surveillance that lay at the heart of her compelling 2016 film National Bird which focused on drone warfare and the experiences of military veterans turned whistleblowers, as well as those who experienced the horrific consequences of those attacks on the ground in Afghanistan. Like National Bird, the military also play a central role in Enemies of the State, as does surveillance and what appears to be Kennebeck’s broader thematic fascination with how neatly we like to separate people into categories of victims and perpetrators, heroes and villains, but how reality rarely allows such tidy distinctions.

Enemies of the State follows the tight-knit DeHart family, devout Christians who had all served in the military. When their home is raided in 2010 by the FBI on the grounds that adult son Matt had solicited child pornography, the DeHart family’s lives are turned upside down. At the heart of the journey lies Matt’s long involvement with Anonymous and, to a lesser extent, Wikileaks, garnering him access to what his family and lawyers believe was politically explosive information sent to him with the intention to pass it on to Wikileaks for public dissemination, thus configuring him as someone whose plight may be most immediately aligned with those of Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning.

Imprisoned and tortured, upon his release the family escaped to Canada where they sought political asylum. Constructed through lengthy interviews with law enforcement, legal representatives, academics and Matt’s own family, Kennebeck combines this material with lengthy re-enactments of key moments of the story, and constructs piece by piece a story that appears to fall away from us as quickly as she is able to build it. Enemies of the State is a confidently executed documentary that voices a fundamental lack of confidence in the very concept of the ‘truth’ itself when it comes to human beings, their strengths, their passions and their very real darknesses.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic whose other publications including Film International, Flicks, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, and Alice in Wonderland in film. Alexandra is a programmer at Austin’s Fantastic Fest and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University.