In the first few moments of the film XY Chelsea, director Tim Travers Hawkins reveals that President Obama has commuted Chelsea Manning’s 35-year prison sentence in 2017.
The sentence was the result of sending 750,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2010 while living as Army intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning.
The breach changed the course of history, in particular from the Collateral Murder video, which showed two U.S. AH-64 Apache helicopters killing a group of Baghdad pedestrians that included children and members of the press.
The documentary tells the 7 year journey in an all-male prison while transitioning to a woman, running for the office for the Senator of Maryland, a Vogue Magazine photo-shoot and the recent arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on April 19, 2019.
YRB Magazine Executive Editor Jonn Nubian sat down with director Tim Travers Hawkins and producer Isabel Davis about the film during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
Jonn Nubian: Great to meet you both. I’ll start with my first question, Why do this film, and why do it now?
Tim Travers Hawkins: The why for me is seeing Collateral Murder.
It’s one of the defining political moments for my generation.
That video really sliced through a lot of the noise and showed us the real truth of that illegal war that I was incredibly angry about as a British person since we were part of the invasion.
From there I learned about Chelsea. I’ve been working at the time just before this project started with children in Heathrow detention centers and they were in situations where we couldn’t enter with cameras.
We were trying to bring to bear this creative potential of the documentary medium to transcend visible contributors and to create empathy with them despite the fact that we can’t show them on camera and that morphed into a project about political prisoners and that’s when I first got in touch with Chelsea.
Jonn Nubian: How did you get in touch with Chelsea Manning?
Tim Travers Hawkins: I wrote her a letter in September 2015 and I wasn’t exactly expecting a reply, but she wrote back and we started to communicate from there. It was a very small seed of an idea that we started to discuss and it eventually grew into the film.
Jonn Nubian: How long did it take from when you wrote that letter up until the premiere of the film at the Tribeca Film Festival?
Tim Travers Hawkins: A total 3 and a half years.
Jonn Nubian: FULL DISCLOSER to the both of you. (And to whoever is reading this)
I actually met Chelsea last year in July at the HOPE Conference (Hackers On Planet Earth) here in New York City! She spoke with Yan Zhu, a security and privacy engineer for the BRAVE browser and technology fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.They discussed her life as a public figure among other things. Because of their friendship the conversation seemed very guarded but she had some very profound things to say during that conversation, I am including some of them for context.
Chelsea Manning: I had a privilege drop. I went from having white male privilege to have a white trans woman privilege, which is a totally different game. It’s a totally different environment. And that’s really hard to deal with because I’m not used to it all the time and I shouldn’t have to deal with that obviously, but it is a real phenomenon.
Jonn Nubian: I have been part of the hacker community and attending the conference since 1994, last year the community was going through it’s own #metoo moment so we were working on a story about that for the print edition of the magazine.
I just wanted to let you know that before asking my next question.
I was in the room on July 17, 2010 where Julian Assange was scheduled to give a Wikileaks talk and show the full 17-minute version of Collateral Murder video at the Hotel Pennsylvania.
For obvious reasons he was on the run and eventually ended up getting asylum in an Ecuadorian embassy in the UK, Jacob Applebaum gave the keynote in his place.
The conference organizers were informed that 6 Homeland security officers were looking for Assange, but the talk and presentation went without incident.
Adrian Lamo was also in that room that day. Lamo reported Manning to the FBI which lead to her arrest, court martial and prison sentence.
In fact there were “wanted” posters of him anonymously placed around the conference. Applebaum actually used his time during the keynote to single him out negatively.
Your film extensively recreates the chat logs between Adrian Lamo and Chelsea Manning.
Why didn’t you include him in the film?
Tim Travers Hawkins: I think its point of view and how you frame a story. This particular story is centered on Chelsea’s point of view.
She never met him. She only knew him through the chat room. In Alex Gibney’s film, We Steal Secrets, he is on camera quite a bit and his side of the story is indulged a lot.
I wanted to retell this story in a different way. We’ve had a huge indulgence of Julian Assange.
I want this to add rather than be redundant. As documentary filmmakers our choices are around where and how we frame things. I really wanted to frame it from the point of view of Chelsea. She had relationships with certain people that were just chat relationships. With her experience, I don’t think they were emotionally coherent relationships. It was more of somebody who’s hurting and reaching to these anonymous figures and in a confessional sense trying to get a burden of herself.
Jonn Nubian: It seems during the course of the film you created a kind of a space where she’s not even aware of the camera. How did you get her to trust you?
Tim Travers Hawkins: My personal view on this process is I like to treat things with the softness. I’m not in there firing off tough questions. We started making this film while she was still in prison. We got to know the people who are closest to her who were working to get her out of prison. In that sense we were all part of a community, which played a huge part. Of course when she got of prison I wanted to be gentle to allow her to feel comfortable. It may take longer but I think it bears way more interesting fruits.
Jonn Nubian: Were there things you wanted to include that didn’t make it into the film?
Isabel Davis: Yes. We have been making this film for 3 and a half years. There were things we couldn’t include in the end given the real estate of the film. There is a transparency with our contributors that was fantastic.
Jonn Nubian: When did you start shooting?
Isabel Davis: We started shooting in 2015, with the lawyers, etc. We got financing in 2016, which boosted us into the next phase until we got it completed.
Jonn Nubian: So a few weeks ago you are sitting with a finished film ready to premiere at the festival then Julian Assange is arrested, do you scramble and decide to make a re-edit of your film right away?
Tim Travers Hawkins: We tend to fetishize the present because we are addicted to this 24 -hour news cycle. As a filmmaker working on a documentary you have to have a filter to these events. The arrest was definitely part of our story and it doesn’t just feel like we slapped it on at the end.
Jonn Nubian: It’s funny that you say that. She also said this at the HOPE conference as it pertains to Social Media.
Chelsea Manning: We’re now being hyper stimulated. This machine learning is like finding that little spot on the reptilian part of our brain to like encourage us to generate more content, which then generates more content.
And so these algorithms are creating a feedback loop. And so that feedback loop is like, hey, you know what really gets people going on Twitter? When they’re angry and they’re upset about something and something crazy and unexpected is happening. So like now the algorithms are encouraging that. And that’s why we see so much weird stuff happening.
That’s because these algorithms are honing in on this little meme-regenerating weakness in our brain where now the memes spread. It is just like DNA. With this information, I get the sense this is actually trying to, in a sense, without cause or direction, we are the vehicles of reproduction for information. And Twitter and Facebook and these social media algorithms are exploiting that.
Jonn Nubian: Has she seen the film?
Tim Travers Hawkins: We did various screenings and received some feedback from her, some of it pretty robust! (laughter)
The last cut we showed her, she pretty much said, “I love it”. She was genuinely moved. The film is quite raw. That’s something beautiful about a portrait film. Human beings are capable of holding within them these incredible contradictions and different strands that relate to our political reality.
Jonn Nubian: Tell us about the soundtrack and song “Let it All Out” that is including in the end credits.
Isabel Davis: The song was created originally for the film. The soundtrack is all original music composed by Savages front woman Jehnny Beth & French producer Johnny Hostile.
It was a fight in terms of what the film needed especially with budget restrictions.
Tim gave them notes about where the emotion of the story was going and this is what they came up with. It was definitely worth fighting for because you wouldn’t normally have a song like this on a documentary.
Jehnny Beth and Johnny Hostile shared the following statement on “Let It Out”:
It is about being inside Chelsea’s head at the moment she decides she won’t be hiding anymore. It’s a great moment of human bravery that can inspire anyone in this world to go beyond their own fear and accept who they are no matter the consequences.
Jonn Nubian: What do you want the audience to get from this film?
Tim Travers Hawkins: Fundamentally right now in these times, we really need rebellious and brave people to show us truths about the world. We also need information that cuts through the patterns that we are locked in some ways. We need to support these individuals collectively in order for things to change.