Tim Travers Hawkins’ documentary film XY Chelsea follows two years in the life of whistleblower and activist Chelsea Manning. In 2010, Manning leaked thousands of classified US government documents to WikiLeaks that she had collected while serving as an analyst in the US Army.
The film opens with Manning’s 2017 early release from prison, and proceeds as a transitionary journey. Between social upheavals, Manning shares her thoughts on her childhood, the document leak, and her political campaign in 2018. We also hear about her personal life, including her much-discussed gender identity, and her family.
The images on screen switch between tweets and online conversation threads to extreme closeups of Manning’s face, by turns distant from the subject and uncomfortably intimate. Hawkins’ camera repeatedly focuses on Manning’s eyes, as if trying to see into her very thoughts. However, the director seemingly fails to make the same interrogatory gestures in conversation. Manning never seems quite at ease with the camera or the people behind it, often turning her gaze away from the intruding lens. She seems sad, overwhelmed, and lonely for much of the film, feelings that permeate its atmosphere. Rather than being poetic, the ambient shots and slow pace are frustrating, and the camera seems like an intrusive presence for Manning.
More than just being vague, some sequences are totally unnecessary, like a tonally odd montage of Twitter emojis. The film’s cinéma vérité style is much more effective. Still, the crucial editing process fails to fully explore either of its stories: Manning’s role as a whistleblower and her newly-free life as a transgender activist.
XY Chelsea commits neither to being a portrait of Manning nor to investigating the aftermath of her political actions. Instead it floats dreamily between the two, never quite getting to the bottom of the many questions it raises.
DIRECTOR: Tim Travers Hawkins
WRITER: Mark Monroe
SYNOPSIS: A look at the life of Chelsea Manning, an ex-military analyst sentenced to 35 years for leaking classified documents about the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010.