XY Chelsea (2019) – Review [Hot Docs 2019]

XY Chelsea screened at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival and will premiere June 7th on Showtime.

[Ed. Note: Being that TV and City is on a bit of a hiatus, this article has not been edited.]

By David Cuevas

As absurd as the following statement may sound, in some way or another, we’re living an constantly moving film – a long-take of vibrant emotion. In the past couple of years, we’ve experienced war, hardship, and espionage, combined in an overwhelmingly concealed post-modern society that values the secrets of others more so than doing the right thing. With this being said, one of the many millions of anti-heroes presented in this grand tale of life is whistleblower Chelsea Manning, an understated heroine who cherishes the livelihood and transparency of her people, rather than the sheltered fundamental lies which she, alongside many other Americans, have experienced during the technological revolution and on-forward.

With the latest documentary XY Chelsea, newcomer Tim Travers Hawkins follows Chelsea Manning’s journey back into society, after being bailed out of prison over six years following her excruciating detainment. The film closely details Chelsea’s experience re-entering into the heightened political environment of the Trump administration, and her fight to be part of the Maryland Senate. Alongside Chelsea’s primary perspective and influence throughout the doc, the film also investigates her partners and family, giving plenty of background and insight to the person who Chelsea once was before entering into the army, to then eventually upload the top-secret documents onto WikiLeaks.

XY Chelsea, first and foremost brings up the conversation of humanitarian ethics, and the criminal proceedings of leaking. We enter Chelsea’s psychology and thought process of her actions at that very moment, the minute when she uploaded the documents onto the world wide web. The film’s nuanced approach into these very ethical dilemmas, also delves into her influence on America, which would forever change many civilian’s perspective on the government and international military operations for years to come. At the same time, Hawkins never scrutinizes the far-right, or even complies with Manning’s at times (rightfully) biased political agenda. Even from a technical point of view, Hawkin’s competent editing and deconstruction of interviews and timelines, is competent to say the least. Yet at the end of the day, XY Chelsea feels more like an informative text-book read, more than an artistically bound feature.

Despite the film’s attempts at sensationalizing Manning’s achievements, the conclusion of the film just feels incomplete, further distancing itself from any creative license, story structure included. Hawkins directorial debut in an impressive feat in terms of the documentary craft, yet the film’s stark nature will leave viewers begging for something more. XY Chelsea is a solid examination on a controversial political figure, that never feels preachy, yet at the same time, lacks the artistic punch needed for it to be called anything more than just good.

I give XY Chelsea a B.