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Review: XY Chelsea, the story of trans woman soldier Chelsea Manning

'The documentary paints a sympathetic and intimate picture of Manning but feels rather fractured and incomplete', says James Hudson.

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Image Credit: Showtime Networks (USA)

Director: Tim Travers Hawkins
Running Time: 1h 32m

The story of Chelsea Manning is a complex and sad one. She spent seven years in prison for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks, some of this spent in solitary confinement in which she was not allowed to lie down for up to 23 hours a day. All of this while undergoing gender transition surgery; Manning has been through much hardship. XY Chelsea paints a sympathetic, and at moments intimate, portrait of the notorious WikiLeaks whistle-blower, following Manning from her release after Obama commuted her sentence. We follow Chelsea for roughly 12 months following her release in 2017, seeing her first few days as a free woman, enjoying the simple and human pleasure of nature and playing video games. Fragile and coming to grips with life outside of prison, Manning is searching for her identity as much as the documentary is trying to discover the “true” Chelsea Manning. It is perhaps for this reason that XY Chelsea feels rather fractured and incomplete.

Manning swings between fear and optimism, at one time using her public image to for activism, even running for senate, another point we see her checking her room for bugs. She remains elusive in front of the camera, unwilling or unable to reveal herself. Though this is illuminating in itself – Manning also recollects on her time in the army, gender transition and her time in prison – it doesn’t delve much deeper than maki. Perhaps, this was beyond the control of the filmmaker, Tim Travers Hawkins. Manning’s presence is often fleeting and intermittent as she attempts to re-establish her life, giving TV interviews and making waves in liberal activism. XY Chelsea only attempts to confirms what we could infer about an individual who has spent 7 years in prison and remains a de facto enemy of the state: troubled and lost. We do gain insight into the person she was before the leaks; quasi-homeless and without family support, she says she joined the army to rid herself of her desire to become a woman. The daunting and difficult task of making a new life for herself as a famous, and infamous, name around the world is the primary focus of XY Chelsea.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film is that at no point is Manning’s place as perhaps the most notorious whistle-blower brought under much enquiry. We learn very little about her views on the leaks themselves, if her perspective has changed, and for that matter her relationship with Julian Assange – in 2019 Manning was jailed for contempt of court for refusing to testify in the US Government case against him. Although this is a personal story of Chelsea Manning, a filmmaker given intimate access to her life post-prison, it seems like a missed opportunity to place so much emphasis on Chelsea Manning, the martyr of transparency, and ignoring the complex and multi-faceted political and social impact of her leaks.

The film ends highlighting recent developments, Assange’s arrests and Manning’s refusal to testify. For this reason, the film seems disjointed and incomplete; it would have been better to wait until the dust settled on a very hot matter than release a murky portrait which leaves us wondering what next. At the very least it feels like a follow up is needed. Of course, a documentary of this nature rests on the openness of the subject to reveal themselves to the camera. Chelsea Manning seems to be a troubled and conflicted character, advocating transparency but unwilling to talk about Julian Assange.

Despite avoiding exploring the ethical and political dimensions of Chelsea Manning’s leaks to any notable extent, XY Chelsea is still an insightful documentary exploring the hardship and struggle of an individual that is seen as an enemy of the state by some, and a hero by others. It is difficult not to feel tremendous empathy for Chelsea Manning; placed in her shoes, “what if” questions will linger for a lifetime. The legacy of her actions will define her life, for better or worse, she is left with as a mark that can’t be washed off.

Editor's note: This film was screened at City Screen York as part of their Discover Tuesdays strand.

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