With more than 15 years of directing and producing experience, investigative journalist Sonia Kennebeck has delved into the world of national security, the government, intelligence, secrecy and cover-ups more than most. With her film ‘National Bird,’ the documentarian followed the dramatic journey of three whistleblowers uncovering the truth behind the secret U.S. drone war, which has been called one of the most controversial current affairs issues of our time.
Yet, there was one story she heard about while in the middle of working on 2016’s ‘National Bird’ that stuck with her, one she couldn’t get out of her head.
“I heard about the case, and I just thought, ‘This is very strange. It’s very complicated,'” says Kennebeck about the curious circumstances involving one individual, Matt DeHart, which are investigated in her latest film, ‘Enemies of the State.’
In 2010, DeHart was indicted for alleged possession of indecent images from under-aged boys. DeHart’s parents, who both worked in intelligence, swear up and down that the actuality of the case is really just a ploy to silence their son, who worked for the U.S. Air National Guard becoming an intelligence analyst himself. While working, DeHart apparently had uncovered some documents that would shine the light on one gigantic cover-up by the government— which heightened their sense of paranoia. Once he was detained, DeHart claims the FBI tortured and mistreated him with drugs and other scare tactics, and from there a journey full of twists and turns involving both the accusations against and made by DeHart are examined.
“What fascinated me was the fact that there were still secret documents and the fact that he was receiving Thorazine (a drug DeHart claims the FBI pumped him with) while in jail—all of these things that were related to my previous work in covering national security,” explains Kennebeck. “I didn’t think at that point how complex and large this story would grow and [how much] contradicting information [there would be]. It actually covers our own journey of investigation. We went into the research and the film very open-minded.”
Going into the film open-minded was something that Kennebeck and her team needed to do if they wanted to get anywhere near the truth. The information comes in waves and throughout the film you’re not sure who to believe, or, you’re not really sure who might just be believing a lie—very convincing lies at that. But without some information, Kennebeck had to go with what she could confirm and has audience members follow on that journey with her as an investigative journalist. She made that clear to everyone involved as well.
“My producing partner and I are doing social justice documentaries, we are interested to expose government misconduct and treatment and so on,” Kennebeck continues. “For me, even throughout production, this story was always about more than just this individual case. It really is the journey to find the truth in our world full of secrecy and also contradicting perspectives and agendas…Everyone in the film, all of the interview partners have their own agenda. So, that was really something that the more we went into the case, and seeing the story in one perspective, [it] starts getting a life of its own. It was perpetuated through media and social media and the internet and so on and just became this worldwide story.”
The internet played a huge part in this case. At a time when Anonymous, WikiLeaks and whistleblowers were in the news almost every day, DeHart’s case gained global attention and became a hot topic even in the foreign press. At one point, after incarceration, the DeHart family unsuccessfully try to gain asylum for DeHart in Canada, and in doing so to garner more support, his parents started social media accounts and even have a website filled with T-shirts and coffee mugs to free Matt DeHart.
“It’s such a media case study on the one hand but also, it’s very critical of the government’s secrets. I think people feel very uncomfortable with ambiguity and with secrets and then they try to fill that space with speculation,” says Kennebeck. “That’s why I’m not speculating in the film. If there are some things that stay in the shades of gray and are ambiguous, then that’s very much a reality and it’s representing what we are dealing with today.”
One huge problem that the documentarian sees with the film is the lack is clarity from the government.
“I do have this very obsessive curiosity and I do have a very strong belief and function with journalism in a democracy. I do think that secrets, especially government secrets, can be harmful,” explains Kennebeck. “I don’t understand why all of these agencies have huge press departments if they don’t want to provide interviews. I do think it’s crucial in a democracy to engage with journalists and thankfully, the Freedom of Information Act is a very powerful tool.”
Kennebeck also says even when a film like this wraps, it doesn’t leave her. Similar to ‘National Bird,’ ‘Enemies of the State’ is a story with so many twists and turns and just as equally unanswered questions. But, those who do get to check out the film will learn everything the investigative journalist learned, and in the same order and timeframe that she and her team did.
For a story like this, you need to have that. It has more jaw-dropping moments than a fictional book and more secrets than all the ‘James Bond’ films put together.
“Because there are these contradictions, I wanted to present not only what we could find, but what we could verify. A film like this, it’s the tip of the iceberg,” says Kennebeck. “As a journalist, generally we start from a point of belief and trust, but then, of course, we have to go back and verify documents. But then there are certain elements in many, many stories where one person witnessed it…And then there’s the question how did they experience it? I think in this case, there are certain events that happened but there’s definitely devils in the detail of what happened first and what happened at the same time. We know that Matt was mistreated in the jail and he was interrogated by the FBI, and there was this investigation for child pornography… and multiple things can be true at the same time.”
“Enemies of the State” will release in theaters and on demand July 30.