Director Tim Travers Hawkins was working on an activism project looking to document the experiences of political prisoners in ‘unfilmable’ circumstances when he first decided to write to Chelsea Manning. Manning, who instigated the largest of leak of state secrets in US history – including harrowing footage of soldiers targeting civilians and journalists during the Iraq war – had been sentenced to 35 years at the all-male maximum-security disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, and had recently been moved to solitary confinement after unauthorised books were discovered in her cell. Hawkins’ letter was one of several the activist had received whilst behind bars, but something about his honesty and the grass-roots authenticity of his message struck a chord with Manning in a way other Hollywood film producers could not. Manning began mailing out extracts of a diary she’d been keeping whilst in prison, the only material Hawkins could access until, on 17th January 2017, President Obama commuted her sentence.
XY Chelsea follows Manning full circle, from her release in the spring of 2017 to her recent re-incarceration for refusing to testify before a grand jury against Julian Assange earlier this March. As much a testament to her resilience as it is a record of her activism, XY Chelsea offers an intimate portrait of a woman struggling to survive under the weight of unparalleled public scrutiny. A rebel and an outsider, XY Chelsea documents Manning’s attempts to build a new life for herself whilst coming to terms with the trauma of solitary confinement and social media pile-ons. It’s a touching coming-of-age study – what steps can you take to define yourself and reclaim your story, when your country has marked you as an enemy of the state? Ahead of an upcoming screening at Sheffield Doc/Fest – the film releases nationwide on Friday 24th May – we spoke to Hawkins to find out more about the challenges of shooting history whilst its being made and how he navigated the fine line between pressing your subject for answers, without pushing them too far.
Can you tell me about the first time you met Chelsea? What was that like?
I started to meet with her team and her lawyers, and began to track the case that they were fighting to try and get her out of prison. That’s how the trust grew, she was in contact with them a lot and they embraced me – I became a part of this very small community. When the very unexpected news of the commutation happened, I was there with them, you can see the actual moment the call came through. The first time I saw Chelsea with my own eyes, was through the lens of the camera. She was just coming out of prison, we were supposed to have a crew with us but the military stopped everyone from being there. I’d managed to stick around, so I was on my own really with the producer Isabel Davis. I kept thinking, god, I can’t believe this is all on me now, please don’t let me fuck this up.
Your documentary short, 1000 Voices, deals with similar subject matter – people who are imprisoned, largely as a political statement. It might seem like a redundant question, but why do you feel drawn to these stories? Is there some sense of mission that draws you towards these subjects.
For me the way you tell the story and the subject matter has always been incredibly locked together. I would say I came to film making as an activist in the first instance, and although now I feel my filmmaking is much more cinematic – it’s much more focused on human stories than a particular political perspective – I’m still drawn to these themes. Collateral murder was a really defining moment for my generation. Speaking as a Brit, the fact that we were involved in this illegal war, that piece of documentary footage that she exposed – there’s something so incredible about the quality of it. Something so harrowing about what it shows. It punches through. Even though we see these horrible things happening all the time, we see these deaths on a daily basis, something about that footage penetrated through our complacency. It gave this incredible shot of feeling and empathy for the people who were being attacked. It was so fascinating to me that she was so important to this story, and yet she’d remained largely invisible throughout because of the restrictions the military had placed on her. You never had her side of the story. I thought that was our role with this film.
XY Chelsea is as much a distillation of her trauma, as it is a picture of her activism. I wonder if you felt nervous about being there with a camera. Did you ever think, maybe I need to leave some time after her getting out of prison? You’re documenting history being made, but was that a tension for you?
Yea, that was something we took very, very seriously. We weren’t pushy. That’s not my way of doing things. I think it’s counter-productive, especially in that context. I wasn’t swooping in with all these big, aggressive line of questions, instead it was about us getting to know one another. Of course there are times where you think, are we contributing in a negative way? But I was so careful not to be putting her in those kind of positions. I think we had an understanding that meant we were very sensitive. Even though it was close to the line, necessarily so if you want to capture something meaningful, we were careful never to cross it. I think that’s an intuitive thing that comes from the kind of filmmaker that I want to be and the kind of production that we put together.
Are there questions that you didn’t feel you could ask, that you would like to have?
People will be aware that there are certain areas for her that remain in a sense, off-limits, due to how much this story is still in play. The grand jury and the situation Assange is in, I think everyone wants to know what she thinks of him. But I think in a way, that question is answered, though not directly – we see through the film that she doesn’t have a relationship with him. The thing about Assange is that he’s a real black hole in terms of attention. He sucks everything in towards him and what I wanted to do with this story was to focus it back on Chelsea’s perspective. They never met, they didn’t have this long standing relationship, they weren’t plotting things together. That’s not the way history occurred, though we may look for more causality when we look back. I feel satisfied with what we managed to achieve given the limitations. Some of these circumstances are hot, dangerous issues for her. I think there’s also a simplicity to her action that sometimes we forget under all these layers of analysis and commentary that happened around the 2010 disclosures. From her perspective it was a very simple, intuitive and emotive act. It just felt right.
Am I right in thinking the documentary was Executive Produced by Laura Poitras, Director of Citizenfour? How do you think the way people perceive Chelsea is different to Snowden? What is the reason for that difference?
Well, honestly, I think it’s a slightly gendered response. To a certain extent, Chelsea has not been seen as credible as Snowden because of her gender identity. They’re very different figures. I see Snowden as a much more cerebral, Chelsea as more emotional. Her actions are almost like, direct action. She’s more punk rock if you like? They do get lumped together, and I think there are reasons for that, but it’s easy to imagine that Snowden, and Chelsea and Assange are part of this group. But they’re not. The reality is that they’re all distinct, individual cases with similarities. Many of those similarities come from the historical context, when these things occurred. Laura was instrumental throughout this process – she made sure all my devices were gone over with a fine-toothed comb to make sure that everything was secure, that all my email was encrypted. That was a really eye-opening process as well, to realise I was now part of this situation where I had to be incredibly careful about my communications.
How do you want this film to change people's preconceptions about Chelsea? What do you want them to take away from it?
I think, fundamentally, I hope it gives them a different emotional understanding of her, and her story. We need people like Chelsea right now, people who are willing to make these huge personal sacrifices to show us when things are wrong. But at the same time, if they’re left to act alone, they will get crushed. We really need to think of change as something we have to act collectively otherwise people get swallowed up. I want people to understand how tough it is for people to go through something like this.