Tim Travers-Hawkins/ UK/ 2019/ 92 mins
@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 7 June
Announced to coincide with her release from Fort Leavenworth, XY Chelsea is a documentary which covers the events that led to Chelsea Manning’s incarceration and subsequent transformation into campaigner, politician, but most pointedly survivor.
As her legal team (Moira Meltzer-Cohen and Vincent Ward) discuss her imminent release and their fears for her ‘institutionalisation’ after seven years and periods of solitary confinement, it is apparent that they are expecting to be supporting a traumatised individual. The professional satisfaction and personal relief they experience for Chelsea is soon displaced by the cold reality of an uncertain legal future.
Whilst the actual leaked footage is horrifyingly compelling Tim Travers-Hawkins mixes this with some very promotional moments of Chelsea’s first interviews and one particularly combative encounter with The New Yorker. Her emotional rebuttal to the questions she has been prepped for are admirable for their honesty but evoke a sense that Chelsea is not ready for the artificiality of intense media scrutiny.
Chelsea admits that she struggles with this aspect of her fame when she makes a visit to an alt-right event and is then eviscerated on social media by the same people who had just finishing embracing her at Charlottesville. Having been sheltered from the polarising idiocy of social media for many years she did not realise that attending such an event could only be perceived in one way: she had betrayed the left, adopted the tents of National Socialism and was planning an invasion of Canada. Welcome to the globalised world Chels’.
Travers-Hawkins originally intended this piece to be experimental digital art about prisoners who couldn’t be filmed due to the circumstances of their captivity. Any attempts at meditative contemplation feel somehow misplaced and detach the viewer by highlighting the lack of question and answer on the key issues.
The end result of this desire to not push Chelsea nixes any possibility for memorable documentary insight and Travers-Hawkins previous background suggests that insight is not his goal. Chelsea’s recent legal troubles re-ignite the doc as she awaits re-arraignment on charges of perjury in the case of Julian Assange. These moments are inserted at the doc’s climax which may have been more effective with some time for reflection.
There are some impactful moments once the viewer acclimatises to the apparently ad-hoc structure of hanging out with Chelsea through various periods of her re-adjustment to the world, and some brief moments of reflection upon her decision to release the classified data. Her best friend Lisa Rein probes more deeply than any when she asks ‘Do you think it was all worth it?’ to which Chelsea can barely respond with a beleaguered ‘I don’t know.’