Dir.: Tim Travers Hawkins; Documentary with Chelsea Manning; UK 2019, 92 min.
Tim Travers Hawkins’ documentary debut is a work progress – rather like the main character – Chelsea Manning, a trans woman who was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment for leaking military “secrets” to Julian Assange’s Wikileaks. The secrets were mainly images of the USA’s covert war in Iraq, including the murder of two Reuters journalist.
Chelsea was born Bradley Edward Manning in 1987; her parents were alcoholics. The relationship with her father was particularly difficult. Even though she was only 1.57 m, she joined the army in 2007 and worked as an intelligence analyst from 2009. She garnered a slew of decorations (among them the National Defence Service Medal) but was still critical of the US engagement and the 750 000 plus classified documents leaked were known as ‘Iraq War logs’ and ‘Afghan War Diary’. They showed the ‘dirty’ combats the Pentagon would have rather kept under wraps. After an online contact reported on her, she was jailed in 2010 in the Army Correctional Unit in Quantico, Virginia, where she was kept in Solitary confinement from July 2010 to April 2011. After pleading guilty during the 2013 military trial, she was sentenced to serve 35 years at the High Security Military Correctional Facility in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, which happened to be an all-male prison. On 17. January 2017, President Obama commuted her sentence to seven years, dating from her first imprisonment in 2010. Since 2013, she received hormone replacement therapy after choosing to identify as a female.
On her release, lawyer Nancy Hollander found a safe house f so she could slowly adjust to her new freedom. In prison, she had struck up correspondence with Lisa Rein, who had also tried to help her. But Chelsea made in clear she wanted a life as as a public person, claiming those who sent her hate-mail would never go away. She wanted to fight them head on. She challenged the democratic Maryland Senator Ben Cardin for the nomination in 2018, coming second with 5.7%. But an ill-timed appearance at an alt-right meeting cost her support; many did not understand that she simply wanted “to spy on the enemy”. In March 2019 she was arrested again for contempt of court, refusing to testify against Julian Assange. Manning objected to the Secrecy of the Grand Jury process, and the fact, that she told the court everything about Assange in her trial. She is currently held in a jail in Alexandria City.
Hawkins does a great job of showing Manning’s vulnerability and impetuousness: she is truly as naïve as she claims. But for the most part we are left frustrated by too many unanswered questions. The director fails to analyse her many contradictions in his rather ad-hoc approach to her own scattergun fight for survival and recognition in the real world. AS
ON RELEASE from 24 May 2019 IN SELECTED ARTHOUSE VENUES