Searching for Truth

After serving seven of 35 years in prison for disclosing 750,000 documents to Wikileaks, whistleblower and ex-soldier Chelsea Manning’s sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama in 2017. Tim Travers Hawkins’ XY Chelsea follows Manning as she transitions from incarceration to freedom.

ASFF: Can you explain your filmmaking process?
TTH: I feel we are all autodidacts. The films are what teach us about the craft, and that’s particularly the case in documentary. You can have a creative vision, but you have to respond to the subject matter and to real world events. You are on a constant journey of discovery, and that particularly rings true with this film, because it was originally conceived when Chelsea was still in prison, with no real chance of a reprieve.

ASFF: What compelled you to tell Manning’s story?
TTH: I was working on projects with detained asylum seekers in the UK, then with children in immigration prisons around the world. I was fascinated by this political tension of a subject who is unfilmable through the circumstances of their incarceration.

XY Chelsea developed out of another project working with political prisoners, and was originally part of a slate of digital art pieces including VR and interactive web sites. The question was: how can you create story worlds and environments that allow people to feel empathy for unfilmable characters? XY Chelsea was originally a project with an invisible contributor, and then developed into a film. The entire concept was that we were using a diary she was mailing me from the military prison in Kansas. This was the only actual document that we would expand on creatively, and of course, that completely changed halfway through the project.

What you see in the film is someone who was well known – but essentially completely invisible – transform into a subject who becomes hyper-mediated. This is one of the major narrative arcs and tensions. She found there was another kind of invisibility within our current media environment: you are surrounded by so much noise and a combative, aggressive rhetoric in the social media sphere.

ASFF: The film opens with an obstructed view of Manning. How does the film aim to uncover and reveal her identity?
TTH: A portrait of a person exists in many different dimensions. There’s always a sense that people are obscured by whatever viewpoint you take. I don’t think there’s ever a complete view of anything, which is why you’re constantly shifting, finding new depths and perspectives, and that opening image was absolutely intended to frame that. A story like Manning’s is vast and there was the decision of what to focus on and what was actually possible within the film.

What I really wanted to go for was an emotional connection with a human being, rather than a Wikipedia page that went through all the different levels of this extraordinary case. What had been missing from this well-documented journalistic story is the emotional connection with her – the sense of who she is, of her portrait.

I feel that in her story, the simplicity of the action that she took had been obscured by factual and very complex analysis. What she did was a profoundly simple act; an act of direct action like hurling a brick. Part of what I was trying to do was strip away some of this ossified information, to find a more truthful act underneath that.

ASFF: How has the process of making XY Chelsea impacted you?
TTH: On a personal level it has really changed my life. It has changed where I live and how I perceive the threat of interference from the state. I feel the threat of power structures around us in a much more profound and visceral way having experienced what Manning goes through. There’s a very real sense that we are all now under surveillance.

XY Chelsea is screening in UK theatres and is also available on iTunes.

For further information on theatre screenings visit here.

Paul Risker