XY Chelsea


Life comes at you fast, as the the hackneyed old social media adage goes. By the time you’ve hunkered down to watch XY Chelsea, a straight-arrow documentary profile of the mid-tier military analyst turned leaker of military secrets, Chelsea Manning, the story may have developed a fair few twists and turns.

At time of writing, Manning has been sent back to detention for a second time for refusing to testify before a grand jury, apparently now willing to risk life and limb before she would ever cow-tow to the nefarious demands of the American government. Tim Travers Hawkins’ film attaches itself to the still-rolling zeitgeist rather than focusing on a single, rounded aspect of its subject’s eventful, often tragic life, and so it’s almost as if we’re hearing a story that’s still in violent flux.

That’s not to say that Manning isn’t worthy of such treatment, and the interest here is in the moral imperatives behind her decision to send a vast payload of classified documents to Julian Assange (c/o Wikileaks), which resulted in a seven year stretch before her sentence was commuted by Barrack Obama as one of his final gestures as POTUS. When the question is posed to her, she has little more to say than, “it was the right thing to do,” which is a stance that makes a lot of sense when viewing drone footage which lays trigger happy US grunts dead to rights. But isn’t the stuff of meaty and insightful film documentary.

It opens on footage of Manning’s lawyers learning that she’s going to be released from prison, and the first big topic of conversation is what costume should she wear for her first big press conference. The title of the film references Manning’s Twitter handle, and much of the second half showcases her natural flare as a liberal media personality with a very solid line in troll-baiting sass. When a rando wingnut tells her she should be shot for treason, her response is that, instead, she’s being shot for Vogue – and the film segues into a lavish fashion shoot sequence on a beach.

If anything, XY Chelsea works best as a cautionary tale about the precarious life of a high-rolling social media personality. By using these platforms as a means to promote her activism, Manning is also held under intense scrutiny by people who feel they’ve earned the right to mould her political outlook. She advertises the fact that she is attending a gathering of alt right joy boys with the aim of creating a dialogue with them, and is lambasted by her followers for even attempting to extend an olive branch across the political chasm. It’s an example of the massively restricted and context free nature of modern communication, and the immense amounts of personal suffering it can cause away from the glare of the computer screen. Still, it has little to do with Manning’s central plight.

Formally speaking, this one goes through the motions of magic hour skylines and trancy ambient music. The espionage aspect of Manning’s crime is dealt with in flashy montages, as if it’s too complex to explore in any really detail. She says that her transition from male to female didn’t really have any effect on other activities and choices, though it definitely made her time behind bars much more challenging.

Manning comes across as someone who either refuses or finds it tough to attach reason to her actions – in one on-stage Q&A with a New Yorker journalist, she nearly falls to pieces under the pressure of a moderate grilling. XY Chelsea is a work which feels like it’s taken to the stage in a glittery garment before it has properly articulated its thoughts.

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