shining a light on chelsea manning’s life post-prison
A new documentary tells Chelsea’s story on her own terms.
Screengrab from XY Chelsea
XY Chelsea begins with the unlikely news, announced back in 2017, that Chelsea Manning’s 35-year prison sentence was to be commuted as one of the final acts passed by President Obama while still in office. It ends with Chelsea in prison once again, this time for her refusal to testify in a legal case against Julian Assange: not out of any objection to potentially incriminating WikiLeaks, but due to her ethical objections to the grand jury system.
Across 90 minutes, XY Chelsea charts the time in-between: an emotional rollercoaster, and a remarkably intimate portrait of a woman who has consistently placed principles above personal safety, from the data dump she facilitated of documents, videos and diplomatic cables that offered a horrifying window into US military conduct in Iraq, to her more recent attempts to infiltrate the alt-right in what she describes as something of a fact-finding mission.
And then, it is almost another film entirely: When Chelsea was released in 2017, the film’s director Tim Travers Hawkins had it nearly finished and ready to go, but the unexpected turn of events made for something wildly different, focussing instead on Chelsea’s reintegration into the real world.
When Chelsea was first released, her lawyer Nancy Hollander remembers greeting the news -- received over the phone from one of Obama’s counsels -- with a simple, “Oh my God!”. Hollander recounts how she thought the seven-year legal battle was finally over, although the film makes it clear that Chelsea’s ordeal was, in some ways, only just beginning. The trauma inflicted upon her during her time in prison has had lasting effects; in one memorable scene, she recounts her initial incarceration in Kuwait where she was kept in a cage and only allowed out for half an hour each day. Even today, despite being nominally free, Chelsea describes her day-to-day life as a “purgatory” because of the ongoing uncertainty.
The access Hawkins was granted to Chelsea’s life post-prison is what makes the film more than just a rehashing of her now infamous narrative. In particular, the into Chelsea’s transition, which she began following her sentencing but could only continue from 2015 onwards, when the military granted her access hormone therapy. To take this life-changing step while under the intense scrutiny of the world’s media is something Chelsea has a tendency to shrug off, but it’s clear from the film that it didn’t come without its challenges.
Chelsea notes that the press surrounding her release was something she needed to harness rather than shy away from, to take control of her narrative and use the attention to spotlight the causes she cared most passionately about. One of the issues that the documentary addresses head-on is the accusation that Chelsea’s decision to reach out to WikiLeaks was somehow prompted by mental health issues or as a result of some kind of emotional instability prompted by her gender dysphoria. We see the emotional turmoil that came from this momentous decision first-hand, with Chelsea describing her need to get the information out before she was dispatched to Iraq.
Then, of course, there was the gruelling experience of living as a trans woman in an all-male prison. Chelsea would wake up in the early hours of the morning so that she could apply her make-up and fix her hair: she was permitted to wear “subdued cosmetics” and women’s underwear, and she was granted weekly appointments with a psychologist to help guide her transition.
Of course, the great irony was that she was in prison alongside some of the very people she had attempted to expose: ex-soldiers with a callous disregard for civilian life, some of them murderers. In the midst of all this, she began speech therapy to feminise her voice and eventually was provided with access to hormones to begin her biological transition. We hear her speaking from prison via audio, fighting back tears: “I want to be treated like a human being, I want to be treated like a woman.” Her activism since being released, particularly in the realm of trans rights, has made her life more dangerous; but it seems she wouldn’t have it any other way.
The unlikely symmetry of Chelsea’s freedom coinciding with the beginning of a new era in American politics under Trump is not lost on the documentary’s makers. But while Chelsea Manning might be a lightning rod for some of the most hotly debated issues of our time -- from transgender people serving in the military, to the complex ethical arguments for and against the leaking classified information -- XY Chelsea is strongest when it looks at Manning simply as a human being. The moments seeing her exhausted and curled up on a sofa, taking the subway, listening to music on her headphones, come together to paint the portrait of a woman who is unspeakably brave.