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TIFF 2020 Review: Enemies of the State

Image courtesy of TIFF

The opening of the new documentary Enemies of the State begins with an Oscar Wilde quote from The Importance of being Earnest: The truth is rarely pure and never simple.  A fitting start for a tale that is a complex web of lies, deception and conspiracy.  Executive produced by renowned documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, this is a complicated story of a family embroiled in a government investigation into their son’s alleged illegal activity.

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But which illegal activity is the question? Enter Matt DeHart, a young man who, according to his father Paul, “grew up on the internet.” As a teenager, he runs for student council president and starts a computer club at his school.  He spends time playing video games in his room, amongst other things as we learn.  He eventually becomes employed by the Indiana Air National Guard, following in his parents Paul and Leann’s footsteps, who both served in the U.S army.  He claims he was part of a drone program, but is honourably discharged after the service claims to have concerns over his diagnosed depression.  However, during this time he also was active in the hacker community having ties to the infamous group Anonymous.

In 2010, the FBI raids his family home.  They claim they are looking for evidence with respect to a child pornography charge against Matt. He is convinced that they are really there with respect to some classified files that were uploaded to a server he ran called, “The Shell”, files that he copied onto USB drives, sent to various friends and then deleted due to their content.  He’s so convinced the government is targeting him and his family for the possession of these files that he even asks his dad to drive him to the Russian and Venezuelan embassies to try and defect.

While the DeHart family claims these pornography charges are bogus, there are investigators and prosecutors who seem convinced of his guilt.  However, Matt and his family believe this is all a ruse, a way for the government to detain and interrogate and, according to Matt torture him with respect to his hacking, Anonymous, and these mysterious files.  The family even flees to Canada, under the cover of night, to seek asylum there based on the UN Convention Against Torture.

There are enough twists and turns in this story to make you dizzy, but in the interviews with Matt’s family, old friends, law enforcement officials, and the DeHart’s many, many (many) lawyers it becomes hard to know who to believe.  Everyone seems an unreliable narrator so every new piece of information shifts perspective.  But if a documentary is meant to portray factual events, this film fails to ever find any confirmed truth or identify who is lying.  In fact, Matt himself is probably the only one who knows what the truth really is.  Director Sonia Kennebeck instead circles around a lot of conspiracy theories, allowing them to linger and dilute any potential reality.

Perhaps that’s the point, as one of the many, many (many) lawyers notes toward the end, “… we are all suffering from the promotion of lies as truth.”  We see this daily, in the news, on social media, from certain tweeting political leaders.  There are ideas and conspiracies that take on a life of their own, strife with their own agenda.  It’s a subject that deserves its own investigation outside of the DeHart’s influence.  While an entertaining view, and technically polished, Enemies of the State doesn’t serve up any answers.  To circle back to the opening frame, the truth is rarely pure and never simple… or questionably ever the ‘truth’ at all.

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