XY Chelsea


Reviewed by: Jane Fae

XY Chelsea
"We are left with the bare facts of Chelsea's actions and her elevation to iconic status, without any real perspective." | Photo: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

As a long-time fan of trans woman and civil rights activist Chelsea Manning, it pains me to say this but XY Chelsea, a documentary attempting to shed some light on her life is a crashing disappointment. I wish it was not me saying that, for as the documentary makes clear, Chelsea has suffered much, not just for her dramatic role in the debate about the morality of US military intervention, but also for her status as iconic trans activist.

And dissing this documentary, which could not have happened without significant access to Chelsea, feels like yet another rejection of a young woman who has already suffered far too much rejection in her life.

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Yet this documentary highlights several major issues with the documentary format itself.

Let's start with what it seems to be doing, what it cannot do. The implied promise, as the film begins, is that here, the viewer will find new information, fresh insight into a figure who has often come across as larger than life, due to the enormity of what she did, passing unprecedented volumes of classified material to Wikileaks, and the US reaction to that.

To be fair, that part of the mission is achieved. But only partly. Here and there, individual comments and observations seep through: her sense that she died back when she was first arrested; that she feels already dead. Her anger at being held up to a near impossible standard of political correctness by her online fanbase. Or her sardonic observation on the US government: “What they gonna do? Throw me in prison? Kill me? They're going to do that anyway.”

From early optimism, by the end of this documentary I was filled with a growing sense of gloom. There is, it seems, an almost inevitability to the narrative arc of Chelsea's life and – this film suggests – the end, the most likely end, will be her ultimate destruction by a State that cannot live with the fact that in one of his last acts in office, President Obama granted her a presidential pardon.

And yet. I am reminded, too, of a piece of classical wisdom: “Call none happy until their life has ended.” The point, a simple one, is that you cannot judge an individual or their life until they have lived it all. Mussolini, Hitler, had their careers come to an unforeseen end in 1939, would now be but footnote in the history books, with historians happily balancing off the good and bad that they achieved. Churchill, too, at different points in his life, might be judged abject failure, traitor or the best thing to happen to the UK in the 20th century. You need to see the whole.

That, though, is absolutely not what you get with this documentary. Rather, you see something episodic, a series of vignettes about different characters, different actors, who all just happen to be called Chelsea Manning. Chelsea the shy child and mother's favourite. Chelsea the intelligence analyst. Chelsea the warrior for justice. Chelsea the prisoner. Chelsea the campaigner and, most recent, Chelsea the martyr, as the State finds reasons to return her to prison and solitary confinement.

Each of these points of focus is fascinating, in and of itself. Yet because there are so many, so different, the documentary fails at two levels. It fails to join the dots or show the linkage between each of the Chelsea's on display and its exploration of each instalment leaves us wanting more. We are left with the bare facts of Chelsea's actions and her elevation to iconic status, without any real perspective.

At times, I found myself wondering – this may feel like heresy to some supporters of Chelsea – whether there were not parallels between her life and that of Gavrilo Princip, the largely unheard of Serbian Nationalist, whose assassination of Archduke Ferdinand tipped the world into war in 1914. Which is not to suggest any kinship or similarity, beyond that their actions, so far-reaching in global terms, have since over-shadowed everything we write or say about the individual.

If there are problems with the narrative, there are major issues with the approach which, from the very first moments, feels like triumph of style over content. Yes, it is grand that this documentary includes the historic moment when Chelsea's lawyer gets a phone call from Presidential Counsel to pass on news of the pardon.

But must it be so slow, slow, slow? The camera in and out of focus, panning over semi-connected images, that background piano that alternates annoying plinkiness with sombre, dramatic intimation of doom.

I fear this documentary, work of multimedia artist-cum-filmmaker Tim Travers Hawkins, exudes artfulness from every pore and somehow that felt...disrespectful, arrogant, even.

Which is not to say that documentaries cannot do this: I have reviewed many documentaries and liked, and hated in equal measure those that brought art to the table and those that opted for a plainer more traditional approach.

The result - a work of film first, documentary second, that, despite its privileged access to Chelsea and her life, leaves too many questions unanswered.

In some ways, I ended feeling this film did unwitting damage to Chelsea, to the genre of documentary. As a journalist, I have often been approached by LGBT persons eager to tell their story. Obviously, this is good for me. But on more than one occasion, I have pushed back: explaining to the individual that while there is catharsis to personal exposure, there are, too, risks attached to even the most sympathetic telling.

That, as the credits rolled, was very much my sense here. It is too soon to be making this sort of “whole life” documentary. Presumptuous and, given the very obvious fragility revealed in the last segment, risky.

I found myself wishing Chelsea had not signed up for this. Not given permission. And I was angry at the temerity of a producer who would make such a documentary now. Too early. Too clever by half.

Reviewed on: 21 May 2019
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XY Chelsea packshot
Following the shock commutation of her sentence, whistleblower and trans woman Chelsea Manning prepares to leave an all-male military prison in Kansas and transition to living life for the first time as a free woman.
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Director: Tim Travers Hawkins

Writer: Mark Monroe

Starring: Chelsea Manning

Year: 2019

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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