TIFF 2020 Women Directors: Meet Sonia Kennebeck – “Enemies of the State”

Sonia Kennebeck is an independent documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist with 17 years of directing and producing experience. Her first feature-length film, “National Bird,” premiered at the Berlin Film Festival 2016, was selected for Tribeca, Sheffield, and IDFA festivals, and received the prestigious Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize and a 2018 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Current Affairs Documentary. Before she became an independent filmmaker, Kennebeck directed eight television documentaries and more than 50 investigative reports for German public television.

“Enemies of the State” will screen at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, which is taking place September 10-20.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

SK: “Enemies of the State” is a dark documentary thriller and investigation into a multi-layered criminal case that involves an American military family and their hacker son, mysterious FBI agents, Wikileaks sources, government secrets, a local police detective, and child pornography.

From there, we uncovered a story that became a true commentary on our time shaped by surveillance, conspiracies, and paranoia, all of which are manifested in this film.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

SK: The secrets drew me to this story. When I first met with the family at the center of the film, the DeHarts, they told me that FBI agents interrogated their son Matt in a jail in Maine where he also received an old major tranquilizer, Thorazine. Medical records proved the drugging and there was also a declassified summary of one FBI interrogation, but it became clear that at least two more summaries were still secret.

The government secrecy and alleged FBI mistreatment of Matt DeHart, and the documentation of his case, disturbed and intrigued me. At that time, my production partner Ines Hofmann Kanna and I had already been doing research for a film on U.S. government torture and were well aware of the systemic maltreatment of detained people by law enforcement and the military. This story seemed to fit right in. But as we found out, there was much more to this case than we initially imagined.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

SK: “Enemies of the State” tells an incredible story and is also a tale of extreme parental love and loyalty. And yet, for me, the film is about more than one single case. It is about seeking the truth in a complex world full of misinformation and secrecy, where stories spread fast and wide, making it increasingly difficult to find reliable sources and confirmed information.

My films have no narration; I don’t like telling audiences what to think. I present the facts and the information I gathered in the most neutral way possible. In this film, the details are important, and so is the timeline of events — including of our own discoveries, which we disclose in the film.

Beyond that, I am personally fascinated by the ambiguity of our world and human behavior. The gray areas and contradictions in life, the bad choices, complacencies, and darkness. I read recently in an interview about the QAnon conspiracy theory that people’s discomfort with ambiguity could be a reason for their belief in bizarre ideas. They want definitive answers.

“Enemies of the State” is a film that presents different layers and perspectives, giving insight into the DeHart case and the dynamics of social media, but also into our own beliefs and perception — including our wish to find answers.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

SK: The biggest challenge was to find the truth. We hit many roadblocks along the way and had to deal with silence and secrecy on the part of the FBI and the National Guard.

Beyond that, we had to weed out half-truths and misinformation that spread so easily through the internet and social media, leading to repetition and circular references.

In a conversation with me, our executive producer Errol Morris spoke about his extraordinary film “Thin Blue Line” that he directed over 30 years ago. He was also searching for the truth back then – and found it. Looking at “Enemies of the State,” he wondered if it might be more difficult today.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made. 

SK: “Enemies of the State” is a true independent film and based on my director’s vision, producer Ines Hofmann Kanna’s and my intensive research and fundraising efforts, and the creative talent and skill of our exceptional team.

We knew what we wanted to do with this film and our funders supported us with incredible trust, financially and also morally. We received major grants from Roger Waters and Richard Logan through the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund for investigative filmmaking, Sundance Documentary Fund, Chicken and Egg Pictures, and the New York State Council on the Arts.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

SK: I come from a working class family, was born in Malaysia, but grew up in Germany. As a teenager and young adult it never crossed my mind that I could have become a film director. That was completely outside of my realm of possibilities. I wanted to be a journalist, which was already an unusual career path for my community.

Looking back at myself as a child, I always loved seeing movies and telling stories. I was a ferocious reader of everything I could find in the library: newspapers, comics, fantasy, science fiction, and horror books. I also constantly wanted to write and create myself. Going into investigative journalism was natural for me and from there the path to film wasn’t far.

As a storyteller, I am drawn to movies. For me, film is the most beautiful and complex medium that exists, allowing you to transport stories and information with deep emotion, nuances, and subtlety.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

SK: Years ago, my editor Maxine Goedicke shared what she learned in her work with Wim Wenders: “Don’t make people smaller than they are.” We have honored this advice throughout our work, acknowledging the accomplishments and courage of the people we film. I think about this statement in the context of pitching and fundraising when people ask for conflict, often meaning personal drama. I feel it is especially common to hear this question about films that document the lives of female lead characters and people of color.

The worst advice was from a person who told me that I should give my original research on drone warfare to a male journalist with the comment: He can get it done. If I had listened to that advice, my film “National Bird” would not exist.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

SK: Assemble a great creative team, people you trust, admire, and enjoy making films with. Creative collaborators who support you and your vision, and have excellent art, craft, and style are invaluable. Try to find good, talented people and build your body of work with them. Intuitive communication and mutual support will help you direct films and deal with all the challenges of our industry.

I’ve worked with my director of photography, Torsten Lapp, for over 15 years. His cinematography is incredibly beautiful and is full of layers and meaning. He has a distinct visual style and can capture his stunning images under the most difficult circumstances, including in war zones. Editor Maxine Goedicke is multi-talented: she is an excellent storyteller and artist with perfect rhythm and pacing, and the most skillful editor I have met. Most recently she has been creating amazing animated collages in AVID for our new film “United States vs. Reality Winner.” Composer Insa Rudolph builds and modifies her own instruments to record natural sounds for her haunting scores, and even writes and performs classical music and rock songs.

My crew has supported me throughout the ups and downs of independent filmmaking, and what I admire most about them is their deep compassion for the people whose lives we document.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

SK: I don’t have a single favorite film. Generally, I like movies with political themes and science fiction. I remember that I really enjoyed watching Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding” when it came out.

I would like to see a big-budget sci-fi movie that’s directed by a woman. In fact, it’s my dream to direct one myself some day.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

SK: I have been completing not just one, but two independent feature films during this pandemic. And it has been incredibly difficult. Some of my family and friends have been impacted by COVID-19 and I have also been concerned about my documentary protagonists. Whistleblower Reality Winner, who disclosed one document about Russian election interference to the media and was sentenced to over five years in prison, tested positive for the virus. She had already been struggling for months under strict lock-down conditions in prison after her request for compassionate release was denied. It has been very difficult for her and her family.

Beyond that I am as creative and productive as you can be. We finished the theatrical exhibition copy for our TIFF world premiere of “Enemies of the State,” and are making great progress in the edit of “United States vs. Reality Winner.”

It has been an extremely difficult time to raise funds, which has always been a challenge for independent documentary producers, but not to the extent that we are seeing now. Now my production partner and I fear for the future of independent film and artist-driven works, especially the ones produced by people without independent wealth. What will this mean for our culture and history if most documentaries are conceived, shaped, and owned by powerful individuals and corporations?

W&H: Recent protests in the U.S. and abroad have highlighted racism and anti-Black police brutality. The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

SK: We can only dismantle systemic racism and stop violence against Black people with radical, systemic change. That includes the film industry that has had a major role in shaping our culture and perception for so many decades. We need people of color in leadership and creative positions — as company heads, executives, funders, festival directors, producers, film directors, writers. This will not happen without effort, because some people – white men – have benefited from preferential treatment for very long and will oppose adjustments that will make this industry more fair and accessible.

True and deep change will take time to achieve and require strong political will because hundreds of years of exploitation have created extreme imbalances in generational wealth, education, and networks that have manifested these unequal structures — in society and in film. And again, there will be substantial opposition to any form of wealth or power redistribution by parties and people who are profiting from the current system.

Unfortunately, systemic change requires time and many people. So while I believe that we should aspire to live in a just society with universal human rights, dignity, and the same opportunities for everyone, we also have to push for incremental changes.

Some people and organizations have been doing extraordinary work in demanding equity within the documentary industry: Firelight Media, founded by one of the most important filmmakers of our time, Stanley Nelson. Brown Girls Doc Mafia, an organization that supports women and non-binary film professionals of color and is driven by the multi-talented Iyabo Boyd and other accomplished filmmakers. And there are many, many more great organizations by and for filmmakers of color who are doing the strenuous work of educating and making a difference.

September 15, 2020
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