Director: Tim Travers Hawkins
Cast: Chelsea Manning
Watch XY Chelsea online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
“Where would you start your story?” director Tim Travers Hawkins asks Chelsea Manning. “What story?” she replies, tellingly.
It’s certainly hard to know where to begin. Manning is a figure who likely needs no introduction: The former soldier famously leaked 750,000 documents to Wikileaks, prompting her to be sentenced for 35 years in jail. After seven years, her sentence was commuted by President Obama, during which time she had come out as a trans woman. A notorious whistleblower, an activist, an unintended celebrity and someone trying to adjust to life again, her story is a complex ball of challenges and changes, one that’s still continuing today – earlier this year, she was sent back behind bars because she refused to testify in front of a grand jury.
Hawkins, refreshingly, pieces together her tale on her terms, taking us back to when she left prison in 2017, to be greeted by controversy and an increasingly divided country. It’s an intimate portrait of someone who’s still trying to work out their place in the world, throwing herself into her pressing, national concerns rather than taking time to reflect upon, and adjust to, her newfound freedom. There’s a tangible sense of liberty, as she excitedly takes the chance to put on lipstick and change her hair, and there’s a powerful sense of guilt in her explanation of why she leaked the classified information in the first place – she felt indirectly responsible for putting together the maps that sent soldiers to specific areas of Iraq where they ultimately died, and angry at the way that civilian deaths were being covered up.
Other actions, though, are not as well explained (or not so heavily interrogated), from her decision not to testify against Assange to her move to attend an alt-right function following her release, which only provoked resentment and doubt from her Twitter followers – and, from Manning, a possible suicide attempt in response. We get some insight into her childhood, but only from part of the family, and without much political and social context to paint the background picture around Chelsea, the result is a puzzle that feels like it’s still being assembled. That’s perhaps less Hawkins’ fault and more because, well, it still is; Manning’s role in history, and impact upon society, remains a work in progress. Here’s hoping that when it becomes clearer in several years’ time, Hawkins picks up the camera again to fill in the rest of the pieces.