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XY Chelsea: Scattered and confused documentary about America’s most famous whistleblower

May 30, 2019

Film + EntertainmentReview | by Candid Magazine

XY Chelsea documentary chooses to portray public figure Chelsea Manning as multitude of things: a soldier, a whistle blower, a prisoner, a trans woman, an activist, a democratic senate candidate, a social media celebrity. After 92 minutes I find myself, and likely the audience, none the wiser as to whether Manning actually is all or any of those things. Director Tim Travis Hawkins sets out to give an honest, well-meaning character-driven account of Manning by weaving her personal and political sides together, but ultimately fails to deliver any true essence of either. 

Documentation began whilst Manning was still in jail, imprisoned in a military prison in Kansas serving a 35-year sentence for instigating the largest leak in US history, disclosing 750,000 private military documents to Wikileaks. Whilst in prison, Hawkins had no access to Manning except through letters and phone conversations, up until January 2017 when President Barack Obama had her sentence commuted. The documentary’s first scenes take place at the offices of Manning’s legal team upon the news of her early parole.

We discover Manning grew up a gay teen to, what is hinted at, dissparoving heavily alcoholic parents who later divorced, we are privy to an interview with her Welsh stroke-ridden mother, although it appears they two have not seen each other since her release. Manning enrolled into the army on a whim and was then assigned to Iraq as an intelligence analyst, where she had access to the classified military information. The world renowned saga about WikiLeaks ensued, the material leaked exposed truths such as the treatment of war detainees by the US military. Manning spend over 9 months in solitary confinement and was later moved to an all-male prison, where her transitioning begun.

XY Chelsea Candid Magazine
Chelsea Manning in XY Chelsea.

We witness Manning’s first steps as a free woman, a famous one at that. Her newfound notoriety is laced with high profile media interviews and a substantial social media platform, which would in turn expose her to all sorts of praise but also judgement by supporters and naysayers. We get glimpses of her attempts to run for democratic senate of Maryland, but her campaign is marred by the continuous reference to her fragile mental state, two suicide attempts whilst in prison. Fly-in-the wall scenes are interspersed with ambiguous interviews with Manning and various other talking heads, as well as media interview footage and random scenic montages.

It all feels rather scattered, confused and fails miserably to offer any new insight. There are no answers to any of the looming nagging questions, the reason for this documentary’s existence, the cause of Manning’s notoriety. When she is politely queried about her days in confinement, she is unwillingly to divulge and instead states her wishes to forget this part of her life, hoping to relegate it to the forgotten vaults of her memory . Hawkins may have been too eager to capture Manning’s first moments of freedom with XY Chelsea. In an interview for the Guardian, he mentions that he was hesitant in pressing her too much, conscious of giving her space, considering her mental state, however it’s to the complete detriment of the documentary. This dismissal to talk about matters makes it difficult to garner much empathy for her, coming across as almost insultingly distant and disengaged, despite her omnipresence throughout the film.

Instead we get murkiness. Murkiness around the Wikileaks scandal, murkiness around her transitioning, her youth, her relationship with her parents or any other relationship. In one instance where Manning is being interviewed at a digital culture conference, we see her unconstrained annoyance with interviewee; was it the questions asked? was it the fact that she felt misrepresented? was she tired of explaining her actions? we will never know. Hawkins never offers a behind the scenes, post mortem probe to explain this annoyance; a gold moment, one of so many, simply wasted. Maybe if he had allowed some years to pass, for the dust to settle and hopefully a more secure, grounded to some everday normalcy, Manning would have provided us with a more reflective, in-depth confession. 

In March of this year Manning has been re-arrested and imprisoned for refusing to testify against Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, following his recent arrest following his expulsion from the Ecuadorian embassy in London. 

XY Chelsea is out now.

Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.

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