Sydney Film Festival Review: XY Chelsea is barely the first chapter in Manning’s story

You get the sense that the stage was set for a great documentary about Chelsea Manning. It was May 2017 when the former US army soldier and intelligence analyst had her sentence commuted by President Barack Obama. She also granted a documentary film crew unfettered access to her life. And yet what follows is a muddled mess of “I don’t know.”

To be fair, while watching you do get the sense that Manning herself doesn’t know what sort of woman she is. She’s grappling with some very big questions. She has people questioning why she became a whistle-blower who helped publish some 750,000 secret military files. She is also taking hormone replacement therapy as she transitions into being a woman. Throw in her seven years of jail time including stints in solitary confinement, and you can appreciate the reasons why she’s so vague. But at the end of the day, this obtuseness does not make a good film.

It was a strange decision by filmmaker and multimedia artist, Tim Travers Hawkins to focus so heavily on Manning with such little context. While Hawkins sympathises with her side, there aren’t any talking head interviews to offer an appropriate frame or structure. There also isn’t much offered in the way of an alternative viewpoint, which means this documentary isn’t a balanced one. The only person (albeit briefly) interviewed is Manning’s mother and Manning admits that they are estranged.

It’s hard to get a true sense of who Manning is. We learn little tid-bits like how she was born in Oklahoma to two hard-drinking parents. They divorced and she was kicked out by her father when she was a teenager. She sought structure and decided to join the military. But whilst serving, her ideology clashed with theirs. She wanted the government to be transparent about their operations so she exposed their war crimes. But the US government branded her a traitor who had endangered the lives of its informants. At the end of the film, Manning is returned to jail for contempt because she refuses to testify against WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.

This film is shot in a vérité style as Manning attempts to re-enter society after her initial release. We see that she relishes being able to wear lipstick and grow her hair long. It seems that the most revealing parts of this film are Manning’s tweets. When she receives backlash on social media for one reason or another, she fires up some sassy comebacks. She’s isn’t as articulate in person, but this could be owing to her fragile mental state.

XY Chelsea is a film with some contradictions and thus, is just like its subject matter. While it strives to let audiences learn about the enigmatic Manning, it seems that there are more questions than ever as the documentary is ultimately quite skittish and offers no easy answers.

This is simply a lot more limbo and drama for Manning and her supporters.


XY Chelsea played as part of the Sydney Film Festival.