Sundance 2022 Film Review: Framing Agnes ★★★★

UPDATE: Screens at the 40th Anniversary Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival on Sunday July 17th at 4pm at Directors Guild of America, Theater 1. Available to stream online July 18th 8am – July 20th 8am.

Chase Joynt’s follow up to his exceptional No Ordinary Man (co-directed with Aisling Chin-Yee) about the life of jazz musician Billy Tipton, is the equally thrillingly and similarly genre-defying feature Framing Ages—expanding upon his own 2019 short—which just had its world premiere in the NEXT lineup at Sundance. It’s a fitting section of the festival for the film to play given that it not only poses questions about what is next in the evolution of the representation of trans lives on screen, but also continually challenges broader notions about storytelling and form.

Agnes is the pseudonym of a trans woman who sought gender affirming surgery in the late 1950s, taking part in research interviews conducted by sociologist Harold Garfinkel at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Garfinkel would go on to write about his conversations with her as a case study, which became widely known when it was published in 1967’s Studies in Ethnomethodology. Agnes would later admit to fabricating elements of her medical history in order to gain the health care she needed. In the process of doing his own research on Agnes in the UCLA archives in 2017, Chase discovered a rusted cabinet containing case files on numerous other gender non-conforming folks who had also been interviewed by Garfinkel.

This isn’t a biographical documentary about his work at UCLA, instead it takes the radical approach of using the framing device of a contemporary TV talk show, inspired by The Mike Wallace Interview, with Joynt taking on the role of host and interrogator (asking Garfinkel’s questions), while some of today’s most prominent trans creatives embody the case study subjects.

Artist Zackary Drucker takes on the rather enigmatic Agnes who doesn’t have any other gender non-conforming people in her life, but has a longterm boyfriend and works as a secretary. While Angelica Ross inhabits Georgia, a religious trans woman from the South who although is happily married talks about the discrimination she faces from police and her difficulty in finding employment. Silas Howard portrays World War II vet Denny who has steady work and wife, and is invasively questioned about using shared toilet facilities. We hear Henry, embodied by Max Wolf Valerio, discuss the difficulties that having official identification that does not match his gender identity has caused him, detailing an incident where a police officer pulled him over and scratched off the paint he’d put on his driver’s license to cover the prohibitive ‘F’. Trans teenager Jimmy, as played by Stephen Ira, brings a playful humour to many of is answers and exudes a relaxed confidence in himself and his gender identity that suggests a certainty that he is right and the rest of the world is wrong. We also learn the detail that his mother accompanied him to the session, a possible sign of her acceptance. Some of the most fascinating moments in the film come while Jen Richards is playing Barbara. Whereas Agnes describes being isolated from other trans people, Barbara, as interpreted by Richards, has a sense of joy as she discusses being part of a network of trans women which she describes as being “like a club”.

Cinematographer Aubree Bernier-Clarke captures each of these talk show performances in crisp black and white. While recreations are often used to pad out or to provide a visual element in other documentaries, here they form the heart of it; compelling, nuanced and emotionally rich, they offer a glimpse into the inner lives of these subjects with the actors mining the transcripts for subtext and exploring the nuance of what’s spoken and deliberately left unsaid. Brought to life in this way, I wanted to hear these transcripts in their entirety and to know every detail about these people. The TV talk show format is effective in exploring the wrestling power dynamic of cis interviewer and trans subject, while also acknowledges the importance of the talk show, for better or worse, in the history of trans visibility.

We also see brief out of character interactions between Joynt and the actors before the interviews begin, as they discuss a line in the script or consider how the scene might play out. These are “off camera” moments in a film where the cameras are never really off, but rather the frame shifts to capture another layer of meaning and another aspect of creating the film. In an insightful parallel, each performer is interviewed as themselves by Joynt about their participation in Framing Agnes, what it means to them to embody these gender non-conforming folks from the past and, as we also saw in No Ordinary Man, how the experiences of these case study subjects relate to their own lives. Angelica Ross for instance finds connections with Georgia, while voicing her initial reluctance about taking part in the project and her frustration with the way that her own story often gets framed as “exceptional”, just as Christine Jorgensen’s and Agnes’ stories were before her. While Max Wolf Valerio reflects on the way that Henry wrote about his own post-World War II life, just as Valerio has with works such as The Testosterone Files and continues to do so with his poetry.

While what the actors bring from the own lives allows them to fully inhabit these voices from the past, the film also raises questions about what assumptions we bring with us when we encounter historical trans folks. In reading and interpreting these medical transcripts from over half a century ago what imaginative license do we use and what do we ultimately want to get from these figures to help us navigate our own lives today? The dichotomy of medical and societal categorization that both affirms existence and places people in potentially restricting boxes is also examined. These questions emerge as the film progresses and are explicitly voiced by the eloquent Jules Gill-Peterson, Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University and author of Histories of the Transgender Child in an insightful and stimulating interview which is used extensively throughout the film. While the acting performances are extraordinary, and there’s so much power in even brief moments, such as an intimate exchange of glances between Angelica Ross as Georgia and Brian Michael Smith in church, these recreations are interrogated for what is being brought to them from our present day perspective.

Joynt and his collaborators begin by asking who Agnes was, her place in history, and how she should be framed now, and expand their own frame to question what we might hope to gain by looking back and how much of ourselves we might project on to those we discover, while continuing the conversation about trans visibility sparked by Disclosure. It is a declaration that it’s not enough for gender non-conforming people to tell their own stories, but new forms must be forged in which to do so. The result is an exhilarating endeavor, cerebral, but accessible and often deeply moving, that continually demands its viewer to be an active participant.

By James Kleinmann

Framing Agnes world premiered in the NEXT section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. For details of further screenings head to Festival.Sundance.org.

Screens at the 40th Anniversary Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival on Sunday July 17th at 4pm at Directors Guild of America, Theater 1. Available to stream online July 18th 8am – July 20th 8am.

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