‘XY Chelsea’: Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Activist and whistleblower Chelsea Manning tells her side of a very fraught, fragmented story in Tim Travers Hawkins’s edifying documentary.

“I love coming-of-age stories,” says Chelsea Manning near the start of the documentary XY Chelsea, a Tribeca Film Festival world premiere soon to debut on Showtime. There are notes of wistfulness and defensiveness in how this former soldier/whistleblower — who uploaded caches of classified documents and video to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks website in 2010, and came out as a trans woman after she was arrested for her actions — utters those words, since she herself is stuck in something of a soul-sucking rut.

Director Tim Travers Hawkins adopts many of the same dissociative techniques utilized by executive producer Laura Poitras in her Edward Snowden profile Citizenfour (2014). The widescreen imagery is either smeary (moral complexity in literal motion) or oppressively sterile. The soundtrack is mostly comprised of omnipresent hums and drones, very Nine Inch Nails in ambient mode. But unlike Citizenfour, the film starts at the end of Manning’s story — or, really, what should be a new beginning for her — with the commutation, in the waning days of the Obama administration, of her thirty-five year prison sentence after seven years served.

Hawkins is there to capture the moment when Manning’s lawyer, Nancy Hollander, learns that her client is going to be released. It’s very moving, and this is before we’ve even properly gotten to know Manning as an onscreen presence. The filmmaker seems to have been granted unprecedented access to both Manning and to the people around her, and he uses this natural, unforced intimacy to present a fragmented portrait of a person attempting to readapt to a society in which they never particularly learned how to fit.

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