Director Tim Travers Hawkins’ feature-length debut documentary XY Chelsea can feel fragmented and incoherent at times, but that doesn’t distract from the shocking cruelty faced by Chelsea Manning both inside and outside of the penal system.
Filmed after the release of transgender activist Chelsea Manning from the maximum-security US Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, XY Chelsea tracks America’s most notorious whistleblower over the following months as she re-adjusts to civilian life following ten years spent in either active duty or confinement.
Production on the film commenced long before Barack Obama’s 2017 commutation of Manning’s initial 35-year prison sentence. Director Tim Travers Hawkins struck up a correspondence with her while she was being held behind bars in the all-male military prison, where they were able to communicate only through letters and phone calls which Hawkins was forbidden from recording. While she described herself to him as “a documentarian’s worst nightmare”, the restrictions on their communication only spurred him forward in attempting to tell her story.
As such, Manning is recorded as she meets her best friend Lisa Rein in-person for the first time, after they got to know each other while Manning was incarcerated. She is followed through an unsuccessful run for Congress and an ill-advised jamboree with the alt-right, interspersed with video footage of atrocities she released to Wikileaks. She is filmed, voice breaking, as she describes her experiences in solitary confinement. She tells the camera that she “died” while held in isolation and part of her has stayed that way ever since. One of Manning’s attorneys, Vincent J. Ward, says while he has seen Manning smile, laugh and crack jokes, he doesn’t believe he has ever seen her happy.
XY Chelsea shines a spotlight on online abuse
Alongside her shocking treatment at the hands of the US government, XY Chelsea shines a spotlight on the vile torrents of abuse directed towards Manning, both through Twitter and the mainstream media. Largely transphobic retorts and threats of violence, including one charming member of the Twitterati telling her she should have been shot for treason, the sheer scale of it is difficult to comprehend and eventually becomes devastatingly numbing.
Yet, for its unprecedented access to one of the most talked-about political figures of the 21st century XY Chelsea manages to feel somewhat lacklustre, and those among us with a fairly comprehensive knowledge of Manning may come away a little disappointed they were unable to learn more.
There are few new insights to glean from the experience of viewing her in this intimate light – the depiction of Manning as a woman ricocheting wildly between bravery and vulnerability is not a new one, and the major events chronicled on-screen are largely Google-able. Still, it does not feel entirely unfitting for a film profiling an individual who leaked the contents of hundreds of thousands of classified documents that any information about her of public interest is already known.
Emotion at the heart
Despite its shaky narrative, XY Chelsea is ultimately a film which places emotion at its core. Particularly evident in a touching interview with Manning’s mother Susan, Hawkins appears to be prioritising a film of feeling over a film of fact – the facts are already available.
The evidently a talented production team behind the film can also hardly be blamed for their end product feeling unfinished when the subject of their work remains at centre of a socio-political whirlwind, her story far from over. Over the two months prior to the film’s commercial release, Manning has been in and out of Alexandria City Jail on various contempt of court charges stemming from her refusal to testify to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.
Currently, a fine of $500 will be imposed upon her for each day she spends in jail over 30 days, and $1000 for each day she spends in jail over 60 days, a move progressive critics have described as “outrageous” and “unprecedented”.
While XY Chelsea feels chaotically constructed, it’s a film about a woman who has become a canonised historical figure while she still very much lives in the present, without any of the ego which leads people down similar paths to become heads of state or billionaire CEOs. She’s skittish and scarred with an eclectic cast of personal demons, but unambiguously and unflinchingly brave.
While to Hawkins et al this is a project eons in the making, this simply feels like the wrong point in time to try and capture her story when it still feels like it’s only just begun.