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‘Framing Agnes’ Film Review: Trans Artists and Academics Bring History into the Present

Sundance 2022: Director Chase Joynt (“No Ordinary Man”) uses vintage gender-study interviews as a prism through which to view modern transgender lives

“Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past,” Machiavelli noted, and while “Framing Agnes” digs into the archives for a look at the lives of transgender people in post-WWII America, director Chase Joynt uses these case histories from the past to prompt fascinating and provocative insights into the way trans people live today.

As with “No Ordinary Man,” the portrait of trans jazz musician Billy Tipton that Joynt co-directed, this is a documentary that’s constantly breaking the fourth wall, with camera angles that show the boom mics and marks on the floor, where black-and-white footage of actors performing interview transcripts will cut to color footage of the performers and the director conferring with each other about syntax and motivation.

Rather than serving to distract or distance, however, Joynt’s filmmaking style accentuates Machiavelli’s observation that we can only know ourselves, as individuals or as a community, if we can understand our historical predecessors. The performers here give life to real, anonymous figures of the past while also sharing insight into their own 21st century lives, examining the ways that trans people in the US have, and haven’t, moved forward.

Like Freud’s Dora, the titular Agnes is a figure whose identity is lost to history but who nonetheless made a huge impact in medical and sociological circles. She was one of many subjects of a UCLA gender study conducted by Harold Garfinkel in the 1960s. She became infamous in some academic circles for misleading Garfinkel and his peers about the specifics of her life so that she could meet the discriminatory standards of the time to receive gender confirmation surgery. What some earlier researchers called duplicity, many contemporary trans activists now celebrate as an act of working an oppressive system for the sake of their own survival.

Actress and filmmaker Zackary Drucker (who recently executive-produced HBO’s “The Lady and the Dale”) plays Agnes, with Joynt taking the role of Garfinkel. The director stages these interviews not in a clinical setting, but as a TV show along the lines of “The Mike Wallace Interview,” which aired from 1957 to 1960. The talk-show segments are shot by Aubree Bernier-Clarke in the square monochrome of early TV, so we know that the performers are in character.

Speaking to each other as themselves, Joynt and Drucker discuss the importance of the talk show in the cultural history of trans people, from exploitive daytime shows of the 1990s (which nonetheless provided a level of visibility) to Laverne Cox’s legendary schooling of Katie Couric about trans issues in 2014.

Agnes wasn’t the only interviewee in Garfinkel’s archive, so we get Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, Silas Howard, Max Wolf Valerio and Stephen Ira re-enacting the transcripts from other trans women and men while also sharing their personal experiences with Joynt. (Academic Jules-Gill Peterson doesn’t portray one of the subjects of Garfinkel’s study but does provide valuable insight as a trans academic and archivist.)

The combination of past and present makes “Framing Agnes” far richer and more thought-provoking than it would have been had it focused on only one or the other. The inclusion of Georgia, the one Black subject of the UCLA study, allows for conversations about how the factors of race and class are key components in any discussion of queerness, and Angelica Ross’ first-person contributions certainly underscore the understanding that the trans community is no monolith. Each participant brings their background in the arts and/or academia to create an empathetic and insightful look at a community that is constantly fighting for the right not only to live but also to explain itself on its own terms.

Joynt, Peterson and Ira clearly speak fluent PhD-ese, and there are moments where their conversations threaten to dip too deeply into academic rhetoric, but the film never veers too far in that direction, always keeping the participants’ knowledge (of themselves and of Garfinkel’s subjects) front and center.

“Framing Agnes” is made with skill and care, getting the most and then some out of its budget. Costume designer Becca Blackwood curates vintage clothing that’s both period-specific and perfectly appropriate for the personalities of each interview subject. (The actors make great apparel choices as well; when Ross refers to “the hunter and the lion” – referencing from whose perspective trans stories are told – the moment is underscored by her camouflage jacket, with a hint of a safety-orange lining peeking through her cuffed sleeves.)

This is a documentary about people talking, but Joynt and his collaborator Morgan M. Page keep that conversation brisk (with the help of editors Brooke Stern Sebold and Cecilio Escobar) and loaded with insights. Much like the UCLA interviews that inspired it, “Framing Agnes” is a vital part of the historical record, addressing trans life as we know it right now and providing deeper understanding for current and future viewers.

“Framing Agnes” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.