Filmmaker Tim Travers Hawkins aims to relay former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning’s “sense of principles and sacrifice” in a new, sure-to-be-controversial documentary.
“XY Chelsea,” which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in May and airs Friday on Showtime, is a compilation of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of Manning, who was jailed for about seven years for leaking more than 750,000 classified diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks. (Check out the trailer for the documentary above.)
The film begins in May 2017 on the day when Manning, who identifies as transgender, leaves prison months after her sentence was commuted by former President Barack Obama. Though two years have passed, the whistleblower remains a contentious figure in U.S. politics. She was jailed once again in March for refusing to testify before a grand jury regarding an investigation into WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Authorities released her May 9 after she was held for 62 days.
Hawkins, who splits his time between New York and London, told HuffPost he sees “XY Chelsea” not as an exoneration, but rather an “intimate character portrait” of Manning that emphasizes her “fight to be a woman inside the military prison system.”
“I wanted people to connect to Chelsea’s sense of principles and sacrifice, whatever they thought about the leaks, and to understand the trauma that she suffered as a consequence of her actions,” he said. “I also wanted to reframe the story from her perspective ... I feel like her point of view was the one that was really missing, and particularly in a way that was emotional and on a human scale.”
Much of the buzz on “XY Chelsea” has emphasized the film’s exploration of Manning’s gender identity. Hawkins views much of the prior media discourse around the subject as “toxic” since it implied Manning’s WikiLeaks actions had somehow been motivated by the “interior turmoil” she experienced before coming out publicly as transgender.
I hope that people can see Chelsea’s fight to be herself, and not compromise on her principles, and relate to that in their own lives. For me, it is fundamentally about empathy."XY Chelsea" filmmaker Tim Travers Hawkins
“I wanted to tease apart that narrative and present it in another way,” he said, “When you face oppression yourself, you are more likely to feel it in other people, and therefore to act out of compassion for them.”
But Hawkins had a larger mission with “XY Chelsea,” and he is hopeful the film will “help foster understanding, tenderness and sympathy” about the trans community, as well as other marginalized groups, as a whole.
“I hope that people can see Chelsea’s fight to be herself, and not compromise on her principles, and relate to that in their own lives,” he said. “For me, it is fundamentally about empathy.”
As to what viewers might find the most surprising about Manning herself, Hawkins believes it’s the small characteristics ― the “gestures, expressions, the little quirks” ― that make up her complex personality.
“She has a dark sense of humor and is very quick witted. She loves greasy pizza and video games,” he said. “She has wonderfully eccentric taste in clothing ... I do not see these things as trivial. I see them as part of the fabric and dimensions that make up a real human being.”
“XY Chelsea” debuts June 7 on Showtime.