“After three years in the army and seven years in prison, the real Chelsea Manning finally emerges in XY Chelsea”


Debuting at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, XY Chelsea tells the story of whistleblower and trans activist Chelsea Manning.

The documentary sheds light on the life of Manning after her 35-year sentence in an all-male prison was commuted in 2017 by President Obama. After three years in the army and seven years in prison, the real Chelsea Manning finally emerges.

A blonde woman with a slick bob and striking red lipstick looks straight at the camera and smiles. The iconic photo taken on her return to ordinary life on 18 May 2017 and her witty, inspiring Twitter feed.

That’s how the world knows Chelsea Manning. A strong and brave woman who is looked up to by many, trans and cis alike. An incredible figurehead for the trans rights movement and one of the most well known whistleblowers.

A role model to young trans people like myself. One whose remarkable poise under fire is an inspiration — and, sometimes, an intimidation.

The revelations in XY Chelsea, then, about just how much of this image is carefully stage-managed, come as a surprise — and a relief. The version of Manning we see online — particularly during her Senate campaign — is carefully constructed by herself and a social media team.

The team is small and comprised of other like-minded trans women, but this still makes her tweets more curated than those of an average user. Her first photographic appearance after release was professionally shot and styled. (The film reveals that she was concerned about the amount of “boobage” she was showing).

This is the version of Chelsea Manning we have “known” for the past two years. It can be so easy to forget that, whilst we’re presented with this curated version of her, she is a human being too.

This feature documentary debut from Tim Travers Hawkins, co-founder of Columbian experimental film collective Cinemachete, allows us the rare chance to see the complexities of trans existence on screen, as well as tackling the issues of adjustment to life after military service and prison combined.

All aspects of Manning’s life are handled with deep understanding and empathy, which is often lacking or entirely absent in trans stories. She appears comfortable and is never pressured for answers by the crew — a stark contrast to many of the interviews she has given since release.

Trans stories are so rarely explored past the surface level. Take Lukas Dhont’s Girlwhich fixates on the physical struggles of being transgender (whilst using a cis actor) as though they are the only thing that matters.

From lingering shots on the main character Lara’s crotch, to the sickening genital mutilation at the film’s climax. Instead of telling the story of a girl’s dream of dancing, we only see her desperate need to transform her body.

Trans stories, both in fiction and non-fiction, are so rarely told in film. And when they are told they often follow a cookie-cutter story that dehumanises and medicalises the trans experience.

The public version of Manning strangely replicates these stereotypical portrayals we see on screen because it is a version of transness that many of us cannot relate to. And although having strong role models is important, it’s also crucial to not hold ourselves to those unrealistic standards. If we do, we risk damaging ourselves further.

Being trans in this world is hard.

As a non binary person, I feel that this film has come at the perfect time. With the constant negative press about trans and nonbinary people that our community faces every single day, this documentary allows us to learn more about one of the most prominent figures of our cause. This is the kind of film we need.

Over the course of her prison sentence, the world had already formed their own opinions of Manning’s personality, motivations and actions. Some claimed that, despite her denying this, she leaked the files because she was trans.

I can only see this opinion of her as a thinly veiled attempt to demonise trans people. XY Chelsea explores the dual existence of Manning’s trans identity and her past actions, showing us that although the two inform one another, this is not a case of cause and effect.

XY Chelsea gives us insight into the true feelings of someone who has been through so much and who is still trying to change the world. She is scared, vulnerable and lost, like so many of us are.

She continues to campaign for a better world not because she is able to – she talks of having therapy and has taken steps back from the limelight for health reasons before – but because she feels that it is what’s right.

In his statement, Hawkins says : “My vision for this film was then, and has remained, a character-driven film in which the personal and political are woven and collide in the most spectacular contemporary style.”

In my opinion, this is the only way to tell Chelsea Manning’s story with any success. More often than not, trans people do not get the choice to separate the personal and political aspects of our lives. Our mere existence is constantly politicised whether we like it or not and so to only tell one side of this story, or to separate these aspects, would simply not make sense.

On the 8 March 2019, Chelsea Manning was arrested once more for refusing to testify to the grand jury for an investigation into WikiLeaks and was ordered to jail once more.

Hawkins addressed this, saying at the time: “As we announce the release of the film, she is locked up once again, proving both the urgency of her story and her strength and uncompromising rebelliousness”.

I believe that the film has, and will continue to prove to be extremely influential to public opinion of Manning as her story continues to unfold.

Undoubtedly, this film will be heralded as “extremely important” by many (probably cis) film critics. And they’re not wrong. But the importance of this film to the trans community is incredible.

Hawkins’ debut has the potential to spark the beginning of trans stories being told on screen with nuance, empathy and real heart.

XY Chelsea premiered on the 1 May 2019 at Tribeca Film Festival and is available to watch on the BFI Player

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