XY Chelsea Review
The timing of Tim Travers Hawkins' XY Chelsea is uncanny. Just last week, Chelsea Manning (on whom the documentary is focused) was imprisoned for refusing to testify in court for the investigation into WikiLeaks. With so much of the film exploring Manning's institutionalisation within the prison system, and the difficulties adjusting to life after her sentence was extradited, the release of the film could not be more appropriate.
Hawkins' film begins as Manning is released from prison, skipping back to her early childhood and time spent in the military, covering the leaking of information to WikiLeaks and Adrian Lamo in 2010. It's no secret that Chelsea Manning is famous the world over for two things: the leaking of military information and the fact that she is trans. Naturally, XY Chelsea explores both of these in depth but Hawkins does not make them the only focus of the film, in a rather smart move. Rather, Manning's integration back into the world post-prison is a huge part of the film - an element of her life which might otherwise be looked over, overshadowed by the seemingly more interesting things she has gone through.
That's not to say there isn't a great deal of introspection on Manning's part regarding her decision to leak military documents. Combined with the visually disturbing leaked footage, Manning's testimony is harrowing to hear. Travers includes a clunky onscreen chat window which feels a bit cheap in comparison to Manning's voice-over, and there are moments which feel bogged down completely by onscreen text boxes and messages. The film is at its best when it lets Manning speak for herself.
As inspirational as Manning's story is (and it is inspirational - Manning is, rightly so, portrayed as a hero), XY Chelsea has none of the finesse of Risk or Citizenfour - two documentaries which it will naturally draw comparisons to due to subject matter. Instead of bringing us closer to Manning, the film actually succeeds in putting up an invisible barrier between the audience and this iconic figure. Manning is reserved throughout and whilst this makes sense (she has been the victim of torture and imprisonment), the interview style means she comes across as inaccessible.
This intrigue and mystery isn't helped by an oddly placed interview with Chelsea's mother, Susan Manning, a woman who has not been involved in Chelsea's life for a long time. The film gives no context as to their current relationship (only that they clearly are not close) and seems to imply some sort of reconciliation that never comes to fruition. As so much of the film centres itself on Chelsea and Chelsea alone, it's an odd change in tone to suddenly interview a family member who seems to have no relevance to the subject of the film.
The film overstays it's welcome but at only 94 minutes it's more a case of not having enough of a narrative arc rather than anything else. There just isn't enough of a story to maintain the run time. As with the onscreen messages, there are whole minutes of the documentary which are dedicated to tweets that Manning has been sent or has received. The point behind it makes sense (it exemplifies Manning's difficulties navigating the online world) but it feels like a waste of screen-time.
XY Chelsea gives a well rounded recap of Manning's life so far but it doesn't go any further than surface level. Manning is captivating but also aloof, and sadly the documentary just isn't as engaging as it should be.
XY Chelsea opens in select cinemas and is also available on demand from today.