Chelsea Manning’s Lawyer Says She’s ‘Very Concerned’ for Her at Tribeca Premiere of ‘XY Chelsea’
The doc, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and will debut on Showtime later this year, chronicles the heavy toll the whistleblower’s cruel treatment has had on her.
At the Wednesday night premiere of XY Chelsea at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Tim Hawkins mourned the fact that the subject of the documentary, Chelsea Manning, couldn’t be in attendance.
In 2013, Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst in Baghdad, received a 35-year sentence for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents. It was reportedly “the longest ever sentence for a leak of U.S. government information.” Four years later, after Manning had already survived two suicide attempts and extended periods of solitary confinement in prison, President Obama commuted her sentence. Now, two years after that life-changing commutation, Manning is currently incarcerated once again—for refusing to testify in a grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks.
“When I first started making this film, Chelsea was still in prison in Kansas,” Hawkins explained. “And in one of the letters that she sent me, she made a kind of dark joke about how she thought she’s going to miss the premiere. That was three years ago. A lot has happened since then, and just weeks ago we were making preparations for her to be here with us today.”
In a conversation after the film—one that Manning would have participated in if she was not currently incarcerated—legal counsel Nancy Hollander told the crowd that she’s “very concerned” for Chelsea. “She’s not in solitary anymore, but I’m very concerned about her being there and I’m concerned about what this means for the rest of her life, that this is just another example. The government is going to continue to go after her. There’s really no reason for them to need Chelsea’s testimony at this point, as far as I’m concerned.”
Asked to clarify the stand that Manning is currently taking, Hollander continued, “It’s an objection to the process. The grand jury is a secret organization that we shouldn’t have in our system to begin with. If she testifies, she runs into tremendous risk to herself, and she also doesn’t believe that we should have grand juries. For her, it’s another step in the principled actions that she has taken. They’re very courageous actions. This is something I would expect from her.”
Hollander’s statements line up with the portrait that XY Chelsea paints. It’s an intimate study of a woman with no apparent sense of self-preservation—someone who throws herself again and again into principled fights, at the cost of her emotional and mental well-being, and ultimately her freedom.
The documentary also helps to shed light on the personal toll of Manning’s courageous choices. While Manning has proven herself willing to risk almost anything to take a stand, she has been severely traumatized by the repercussions of her actions. During one of the bleakest interviews that she gives throughout the film, Manning describes her experience in solitary confinement prior to her military hearing. At one point, in Kuwait, she was kept in a cage for 60 days, for up to 23-and-a-half hours per day. Manning struggles to articulate what she experienced there, before concluding, “I was alive but also dead, and I’ve been dead since.” For Manning, even after her release, freedom feels like “purgatory.” She explains her inability to escape “this sense of impending doom”—paranoia that has since proved prophetic.
Now that Chelsea Manning is back in hell, it feels more imperative than ever to understand how she ended up there in the first place.
The documentary begins with news of the commutation of Manning’s sentence. It follows her from her release to a safe house, and then out into the world. At various points we return to the past, reconstructing Manning’s whistleblowing, her trial, and her time in prison through messages, phone calls, and news footage, all framed through Manning’s own recollections. In the present-day narrative, we see Manning physically adjusting to freedom. In her words, “learning how to be again.” Of course, Manning has to do more than “just be”; she’s a public figure now, and we watch her navigate fame—interviews, photoshoots, her first viral tweet. Some people want to hear from Manning, learn more about why she did what she did. Others, like threatening trolls who call her a traitor, have already made up their minds.
XY Chelsea is in part an effort to refute the narratives that formed around Manning when she first entered the public’s consciousness, like takes that attributed her decision to give classified documents to WikiLeaks to gender dysphoria-related distress. To hear Chelsea Manning tell it, she was disturbed by what was being done in the name of the American people in Iraq and Afghanistan, from civilian deaths to torture tactics. In her words, “life was cheap in Iraq.” While on leave, Manning recalled feeling as if everyday Americans had forgotten about the war, and were unaware of its atrocities. She had access to classified documents that would provide a window into these wartime realities; moreover, she felt guilt over her complicity. Manning attempted to contact multiple mainstream news outlets, but wasn’t getting anywhere. Knowing that she needed to leak the documents before returning to Iraq, she turned to WikiLeaks.
During the film’s talkback, Hawkins emphasized, “Really, if you honestly look at the interaction between [Assange and Manning] it wasn’t the kind of thing that’s been built up by the media. And I think, you know, we often make these sort of associations, that they’re kind of part of a cabal, that Snowden and Assange and Chelsea are all friends and talking on the phone and that’s just not the case…I think what this film was really about is firstly the personal story, and re-centering the perspective.”
An important part of that reclamation is hearing Manning talk about her transition, on her own terms. Manning says that she always intended to go public as a whistleblower, but was afraid that “being trans would take over everything else.” She served her sentence in an all-male prison, where she was able to successfully sue to begin hormone therapy. As a trans woman in prison, Manning remembers being ogled and judged by fellow prisoners and guards. She says that the guards would often walk in on her while changing; and then, she adds, there were the strip searches. In a recorded excerpt of a prison phone call, an emotional Manning can be heard pleading, “I want to be treated like a human being, I want to be treated like a woman.” Painful descriptions of an attempted suicide attempt underline the direness of the situation that Manning had found herself in—believing, at that point, that she would spend the rest of her life behind bars.
Once she was released Manning wasted little time putting her platform to use, throwing herself into activist work before she had begun to adjust to life outside. She even launched a Senate campaign, in part galvanized by the rise of the alt-right. At one point in the documentary, explaining why she felt the need to speak out against fascism, Manning asks, “What are they going to do, throw me in prison? Or kill me? They’re going to do that anyway.”
This anti-fascist fight quickly led to a huge controversy: Manning, in what she describes as an effort to learn more about her enemy, attended an alt-right event. While Manning was transparent about her efforts and her motives, many accused her of hanging out with neo-Nazis and bombarded her with criticism on social media. Documentary footage taken in the midst of the backlash shows Manning extremely upset, mainly with herself. A subsequent tweet sent from the roof of a building sparked fears that Manning might attempt suicide. While she was ultimately fine, she took a step back from her campaign in an effort to focus on her health.
At one point in the film, Manning insists, “I’m not a hero”; she is, however, someone who firmly believes that no one should sit around waiting for a savior—that “it’s not going to stop until we stop them.” This core belief illuminates Manning’s actions. She is someone who stands up for what she believes in, often past her human limits.
Speaking on Manning’s current incarceration, Janus Rose, a friend and member of Chelsea’s jail support committee, said, “She really is concerned about using this as an opportunity to engage in another protest against a system that she finds unjust.” Later on, Rose added, “She didn’t want to just kind of fall into obscurity when she was released. She wanted to seize this moment and use it to produce some kind of good, because she’s always kind of been the kind of person that can’t really just like sit by when she knows she can do something. I always tell people that’s the most consistent thing about her personality, is that in every phase of her life that I know about, she seems to, when given an opportunity to do something, she has this bias toward action. And you know, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it backfires. But I think it’s great and it’s good that we have people like that.”
Another Manning lawyer, Vince Ward, agreed, saying that “Chelsea’s not a typical person.” He continued, “There’s something about being around people who are sacrificial to an extent, and I didn’t really think that existed until I was around Chelsea—that there were people who were literally willing to do something that was so contrary to their self-interest because they felt that strongly about something."
“I know that she says she’s not special, but I think there’s something special about that rebellious spirit,” Hawkins chimed in. “But at the same time, if you act alone against a huge institution like the U.S. government, it’s going to crush you. It’s going to swallow you up, and so whilst we kind of venerate and can sometimes martyrize figures like Chelsea, whistleblowers who stand up, actually what we really need to do is be getting behind them collectively, because it’s only going to be through collective action that we actually do make any sort of real changes... You need the rebels and people like Chelsea, but you also need all of us to really rally around. And I think now is a great moment for us to help her.”
At the beginning of the film, Manning confesses that she loves a good coming-of-age story. It’s a sentiment made all the more poignant as we see how Manning used the army to escape a largely unhappy adolescence, before moving from the military to prison, and essentially losing a decade in the process. As Rose put it, “She didn’t really get to have a young adulthood… and all of a sudden she comes out and she’s, you know, 29 approaching 30 years old and the world has changed.”
Now, Manning’s life has once again been put on hold, as her friends and supporters eagerly wait for the day that she can start learning “how to be” all over again.