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‘XY Chelsea’ Is Bittersweet Film On Chelsea Manning’s Life After Commutation

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For this week’s newsletter, Shadowproof managing editor Kevin Gosztola reviews “XY Chelsea,” the documentary on Chelsea Manning that premiered on Showtime on June 7.

It is difficult enough for a person to transition from the United States military back to life as a civilian. It is even more difficult for a person to transition from the military to prison and then back to life as a civilian. The stress becomes even more compounded when one is a prominent figure and everyone has their expectations of who you are and what you are supposed to do now.

“XY Chelsea,” the first feature documentary from Tim Travers Hawkins, explores moments in Chelsea Manning’s life immediately following her release from military prison at Fort Leavenworth.

The film was largely completed before Chelsea was subpoenaed and jailed twice because she refuses to testify before a federal grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. However, this latest development adds an undercurrent of bittersweetness.

XY Chelsea” opens with her attorneys, Nancy Hollander and Vincent Ward, who worked on her appeal and request for clemency. It is January 2017. The counsel to President Barack Obama calls to inform them that Chelsea’s sentence was commuted. It was entirely unexpected.

“I feel like my world has been turned upside down,” Chelsea says, as she reckons with the thought that she will be released. “I’m definitely institutionalized,” and, “We are in uncharted territory in a lot of ways now.”

Chelsea is faced with the prospect of having to learn “how to be again.” Except, she never really had a full grasp of how to live as herself before she was incarcerated, blew the whistle and revealed over 700,000 documents, or joined the military. She was not living as herself because—as she states in the film—she was always a transgender woman.

She offers her supporters a moment to reflect on what they made possible by defying the cynics, who believed freedom was not possible.

“I was in prison for the rest of my life. There was a lot of people that didn’t think it was worth the effort, didn’t think Obama would consider it. It was never going to happen. It was a shot in the dark,” Chelsea recounts.

There are many candid moments in the film, where viewers get to see the Chelsea that she wants to be and not the Chelsea that she had to be to survive a military court-martial.

While putting on her lipstick, she shares how she believes trans people like her join the military to “man up” because they feel a pressure to conform. There is no better conformity environment than the military, but “obviously you can’t stop being who you are.” (A light moment follows as she adds, “This is a fantastic shade of lipstick,” while finishing her makeup in front of the mirror.)

Much of the film focuses on this internal struggle that Chelsea endures over how she is perceived versus how she views herself. She constantly feels the pressure to clear up or correct misperceptions, but these misperceptions are largely out of her control. Opinions were formed by those in the political and media establishment while she was in pretrial confinement and could not defend herself. That shaped public understanding, and she may never be able to shift what they think about her.

Chelsea headlined the New Yorker Festival in September 2017. She was interviewed by Larissa MacFarquahar, a staff writer for the New Yorker Magazine since 1998.

A clip from the event powerfully illustrates how the media establishment still does not really understand what Chelsea did. In fact, the space in which many of these journalists occupy likely discourages them from acknowledging certain truths.

“How did the turmoil that you were going through in terms of thinking about transitioning how did that affect your disclosures later on?” MacFarquhar asks.

Chelsea replies, “I don’t think they’re connected. I see the endless stream of violence and death and destruction as being the primary motivator.”

The next questions take on greater importance now that WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange faces extradition and prosecution for 17 charges under the Espionage Act.

“What did you know about WikiLeaks?”

Chelsea does not quite have a well-formed answer, but what she says undermines all aspects of the government’s contrived theory for prosecution. She recalls, “I was running out of time. I was running out of decisions.” The press would not publish her documents (even though she contacted them). She had to go back to Iraq and did not want to try and send them to anyone there. WikiLeaks had the tools available for accepting submissions so she sent the materials to the organization.

MacFarquhar brings up Assange and how names were not redacted, which endangered informants in Afghanistan. “We strongly dispute those facts. The government was not able to show any indication of that.”

It is evident MacFarquhar does not have much of a rebuttal, but this is the talking point she prepared to address so she keeps at it.

“Did you not fear sending out these things that you did not know what was in them?”

“I did know what was in them. I worked with this information every day.”

MacFarquhar won’t let it go yet. “Did you not fear that it might hurt someone if you didn’t know exactly?”

“Absolutely not. It’s historical data. There’s no sources. There’s no methods. There’s no intelligence information in here,” Chelsea answers. “It’s not there. It’s people dying and people getting killed and people suffering on a massive incredible scale.”

Chelsea lets out a huge sigh of exasperation. It is clear she is not certain she has gotten through to MacFarquhar, and she is understandably irritated.

That exchange is hardly the most important moment in the story of Chelsea. Her reflection on her time on leave in January 2010, when she made the decision to release documents, is far more crucial to her life.

“I came back from Iraq on leave. I came to an empty house. It was surreal,” Chelsea recalls. “I had this sense of disconnect. People were living normal lives while we were killing or being killed. News outlets, they didn’t care. It wasn’t newsworthy to them. The notion of the Iraq War [had] left the consciousness.”

In another clip, Chelsea expresses her sense of personal responsibility for attacks like the one she revealed in the “Collateral Murder” video.

“I didn’t pull the trigger. But I put the guys who pulled the trigger there,” Chelsea suggests. “I put together the maps that said ‘go here.'” And everybody thinks it is clean. It is surgical. “No, it’s a fucking mess.”

That gives viewers an even better sense of what drove her to blow the whistle and release documents, but the remarks alone do not capture how suffocating it must feel to see politicians and media pundits out there calling her a traitor, spreading misinformation about what she did or did not do, and reinforcing their own deeply held nationalistic prejudices to a degree that causes her distress. Which is why the New Yorker Festival clip packs such a punch.

Overall, the film manages to string together a series of emotional moments that show her struggle as a transgender woman is intertwined with her struggle as an Army whistleblower. It provocatively demonstrates how Chelsea may be a target—or feel like a target—of government oppression for the rest of her life.

“It is never gonna stop until we stop them,” Chelsea declares. And she was right.

Not long after, she was subpoenaed and ordered to go to jail for refusing to cooperate with an investigation that targets a publisher and poses a threat to the First Amendment.

No matter how much she tries to be herself, Chelsea faces some new attack that brings her additional trauma and chips away at her fragile soul. Yet, somehow, in the face of it all, she holds to her principles, and while she may not want the pressure of being labeled a hero, she inspires many through her consistent acts of resistance.

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Shadowproof is a press organization driven to expose systemic abuses of power in business and government while at the same time developing a model for independent journalism that supports a diverse range of young freelance writers and contributors. It is intrinsically committed to elevating voices from marginalized communities, as well as dissenting perspectives which deserve greater attention.