Chelsea Manning and Rohingya Muslims featured in new documentaries
XY Chelsea

TORONTO—Filmmaking has not only become more accessible to the masses but with newer technology, many documentaries are covering the news almost instantly. The Toronto Hot Docs Film Festival this year featured many timely stories that address current world issues. One prominent film highlighted the courageous life of whistleblower Chelsea Manning who risked her life the day she uploaded thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. XY Chelsea documents her life from that day to the present, with all the dramatic twists and turns resulting from her exposure to U.S. barbarism in the Iraqi war. What she saw while in Iraq traumatized her for life and she’s been paying for it ever since.

Manning was scheduled to travel with the new film along with UK director Tim Travers Hawkins but was imprisoned once again, this time for her unwillingness to cooperate with a Grand Jury investigation of WikiLeaks. Hawkins had pitched the film idea to her three years ago when she was in a different state of mind, and it looked like she was heading into recovery mode.

The powerful film covers the key points in her life. With flashbacks of her early family life as a young boy named Bradley, and her decision to enlist in the military, you can see her unique life unfolding. In 2010 she was sentenced to a 35-year term for releasing secret military documents. The emotional and mental pain she suffered while in confinement led to a suicide attempt. Dealing with the consequences of coming out as a trans person added to the trauma of prison life. Surprisingly, her harsh sentence was commuted (not pardoned) by outgoing President Obama after serving only 7 years.

The director met Manning while in prison, and became one of her few confidants, allowing for many privileged scenes throughout this revealing documentary. The script is based on a diary she wrote while in prison. Because of the sensitive information discussed, including U.S. war crimes, the doc is a bold political act itself.

Upon release from prison, she was saturated in social media, dolled up for magazine front pages, radio and TV interviews. She attended major political rallies and even ran for office. The film offers a rare and intimate view of her life, allowing a better understanding of her courageous choices. It also shows her sometimes reckless behavior and extreme fragility, but the film wisely avoided any psychological analysis.

The film is often tragic in tone, showing the pervasive surveillance ominously growing in the U.S. There is humaneness in the portrayal of its subject, showing how the brutality and injustice she experienced while in service prompted her to find a compassionate and necessary solution. As if she had no other choice, during a short furlough she chose to quickly upload the files to the most accessible site at the time—WikiLeaks. But she claims there was no direct communication at all with Julian Assange, and this will be a major factor in the upcoming trial of the WikiLeaks founder. In the meantime, she has been arrested once again, for her unwillingness to play a role in this attempt to link her with Assange.

Power sharing: Ang San Suu Kyi with General Min Aung Hlaing. | Aung Shine Oo / AP

“I’m not the person people think I am,” she says.

The documentary is planned to be released on Showtime this summer. The trailer can be found here. For an interview with Manning, see here.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya Muslims

The burning issue of genocide among the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is the focus of another revealing study in a film entitled On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship. The well-funded documentary is a thorough study enriched by privileged access to the highest officials. Winners and losers of the power struggles in Burma/Myanmar are all available to explain how they got to this tragic situation with the Rohingya people, former Bangladesh Muslims who settled in the Rakhine State along the shores of the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar.

Ironies abound in this country long isolated from the rest of the world. Well known activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, the darling of Western democracy and a thorn in the side of the military government, was constitutionally barred from running for president. But with clever maneuvering, a position more powerful than a president was created, and she was eventually elected to lead the government toward a more compliant form of democracy acceptable to the Western powers. One leader amusingly calls it a “democratic dictatorship.”

Aung’s father was a communist, a founder of the modern Burmese army and considered the father of the nation as he negotiated the independence treaty with Britain in 1948. Her privileged status allowed her to be educated in the UK, but upon her return, she was put under house arrest for over 15 years because of her open support of the regime change advocated by Western powers.

Now, upon election as State Counselor, she finds herself working alongside her former enemies, the reformed and less threatening military leaders who have been accused of genocidal practice against the Rohingya people. Many of those Muslims have committed acts of terrorism against the mostly Buddhist Myanmar population, pushing the government into extreme retaliation. The film attempts to be fair with very informative interviews with people on all sides of the struggle.

The trailer can be seen here.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.