BFI Flare ’22: ‘Framing Agnes’ Jarringly Gives History A Voice In This Meta Documentary

Courtesy of BFI Flare

Chase Joynt’s solo directorial debut Framing Agnes is a portrait of a trans pioneer through the eyes (and mouths) of current trans people. Agnes was a participant in Harold Garfinkel’s gender health research at UCLA in the 1960s–those engaged in trans history are likely to have come across her. 

Joynt gained access to Garfinkel’s archives after his death in 2011. In it, he found the entirety of Agnes’ transcripts, as well as the transcripts of six other transgender interviewees. Joynt and co-director Aisling Chin-Yee use a chat show device to create a dialogue between Farfunkel’s research participants, and current names like Pose actress Angelica Ross, filmmaker Silas Howard and writers Max Wolf Valerio and Stephen Ira. 

Framing Agnes shares DNA with the directors’ previous outing, No Ordinary Man, which explored the life of trans jazz musician Billy Tipton through trans actors re-animating his life. In this second feature, Joynt breaks the fourth wall in an attempt to compare the experiences of trans people from the present and the present. Participants are interviewed as themselves before they appear on the fictional chat show (presented by Joynt himself) to recreate these old transcripts. Unfortunately, this rather heavy-handed technique overpowers emotive performance and a wealth of interesting material.

Agnes was a trans woman who lied to medical professionals about the spontaneous development of her breasts to get approved for gender confirmation surgeries normally reserved for intersex people. This is all that is really learnt about Agnes (played by Zackary Drucker), as this documentary would rather use her as a figurehead to compare the trans fight through the ages. This extraordinarily brave woman becomes a signifier for the director’s own mortality as a trans man and a folk hero in trans mythology, which is doing the early pioneer a great disservice.

The combination of past and present does bring a richness to Framing Agnes that just reciting old transcripts may have missed. This is especially notable with Georgia, the one black subject of the UCLA study, played by Angelica Ross who opens up a conversation about how race and class are so intrinsically connected to how we talk about queerness. 

The film often feels more like a gender studies education film than an engaging documentary. This is due to the heft of the contextual background resting on the shoulders of Jules-Gull Peterson, a professor of transgender history at Johns Hopkins University – who while dynamic and knowledgeable, lends a heavier, academic angle to the film. Peterson’s formal talking head contrasts the casual conversations from the cast talking over their own experiences, and the black and white recreations of the old transcripts are disjointing. Framing Agnes stumbles in trying to understand if any progress had been made since those interviews took place. The hybrid documentary wants to declare that we have moved forward, even if it’s mostly performative, but it struggles to find the evidence that much has truly changed  Any argument that appears in Framing Agnes is presented haphazardly due to sloppy cuts that break up the seven interviews (and cast members) into little inter-mingling chunks.

Framing Agnes is a thought-provoking and necessary exploration of trans stories, reframing the narrative of the trans community, and opening the vaults of history to a huge range of fascinating voices that had previously been locked away – but these histories deserve to be told through a clearer lens.

Framing Agnes was shown as part of BFI Flare 2022.

by Amelia Harvey

Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy

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