In 2010, US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for releasing 750,000 classified and/or sensitive documents to WikiLeaks while serving as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army in Iraq. In 2013, Manning came out as a transgender woman, and in 2017 her sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama.
Shot over two years and featuring exclusive interviews and behind-the-scenes verité with Manning, 'XY Chelsea' picks up on the momentous day when she leaves prison. It would be easy to focus purely on Manning’s actions, subsequent incarceration and release to tell the story of an individual standing against the shady powers of the state and military-industrial complex. Instead, Hawkins chooses to dole out the details of Mannings’ leaks - both in their content and the manner of their distribution - to a tight segment at the film’s midpoint. This creates space for 'XY Chelsea' to explore something altogether trickier, messier and more personal.
This strangely paced documentary (it unfolds out of sequence) uses archival footage, reconstructed online conversations (a stylised screen recording of Chelsea disclosing her actions to confidante Adrian Lamo on a TOR chatroom in 2010) and interviews with Manning, her legal team and associates (not unlike similarly-themed docos like ‘Citizenfour’ and 'Risk'), as director Tim Travers Hawkins tries to paint a picture of a figure whose trans identity is inextricably tied to her public identity as an activist, and the problematic ways that her private self and public persona relate.
Manning was born Bradley Manning in Oklahoma in 1987, and both of her parents (only her mother is interviewed) were alcoholics. From what we hear, Manning led a very insecure life as a child and adolescent, and she was pressured to conform, which is what led her to sign up for the military in 2007. The diminutive but rebellious Manning did not fit into this new environment in any sense, yet the army was so in need of recruits that she was eventually entrusted with classified information. In one of the film’s many personal moments Chelsea remarks upon her entry into the military, that she thought of it as going "clean"; running away from her identity as a trans woman.
Director Tim Travers Hawkins tries to paint a picture of a figure whose trans identity is inextricably tied to her public identity as an activist, and the problematic ways that her private self and public persona relate.
In a public interview with a New Yorker reporter, Manning is asked tough but fair questions about what she did and why she chose WikiLeaks, and she responds very defensively and inconclusively. It's movements like these in which the audience can't help but be reminded that there is so much of this story that needs further explanation, information and context, that judgment regarding much of what we are being presented has to be suspended for now.
Manning is seemingly soft-spoken and unremarkable: a nerdy librarian-type, neither emotionally volatile on camera or possessing any strident lifelong political ideals. As she recounts details of the dark, tiny cells she was kept in for extended periods of time, it’s impossible not to question what kind of person would take the risks that she did, especially with the knowledge that she was well aware of what would happen after leaking the information to the public. ‘XY Chelsea’ connects this unusually profound resilience to Manning’s gender identity - her status as a trans woman would inevitably fuel the knife fight of a media debate surrounding Manning as traitor versus hero, made even more volatile by the even more divisive battlelines of so-called identity politics.
Taken as a whole, it is a difficult personal narrative to try to digest and make clear sense of. Still, ‘XY Chelsea’ is an intimate look at a very complex identity who did what she thought was the right thing, despite the dire consequences.