How Chase Joynt is imagining new trans worlds with his documentary Framing Agnes
The filmmaker sits down with Peter Knegt to talk about his award-winning documentary on Agnes Torres
Here & Queer is an interview series hosted by Peter Knegt that celebrates and amplifies the work of LGBTQ artists through unfiltered conversations.
In the early 1960s, Agnes Torres — a pseudonymized transgender woman — participated in sociologist Harold Garfinkel's gender health research at UCLA, making her the first subject of an in-depth discussion of transgender identity in sociology. And while this has long been considered a pioneering moment in trans history, Torres' story gets an unprecedented new platform in Chase Joynt's remarkable documentary Framing Agnes.
The film premiered nearly exactly one year ago at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it became one of only two films to win multiple prizes at the festival's awards (the other film, notably, was fellow Canadian Daniel Roher's Oscar-nominated Navalny). Now, it's in the midst of a theatrical release (and picking up more laurels: it just was nominated for GLAAD Media Award), and we were lucky enough to have Joynt stop by the set of Here & Queer to talk about the journey the film has taken — and that he's taken along with it.
The film marks an pretty extraordinary collaboration of trans artists, including Morgan M. Page (who co-wrote the film with Joynt) and actors Angelica Ross, Zackary Drucker, Jen Richards and Silas Howard, among others. Together, they bring Agnes' story to life through a powerful blend of documentary and narrative filmmaking that interrogates how trans stories are told, and by whom.
"[Agnes is] remembered because she manipulated the medical system by telling a very strategic story about her life history in order to get past the gatekeepers and to receive the gender affirming care that she so desperately desired and required," Joynt says. "And so one of the things that's really fascinating is that she gets taken up as this kind of rogue hero who fucks the medical system in order to get what she wants. But she's also one of the reasons why in certain disciplinary spaces, trans people start to be pathologized as liars and or are taken up as untrustworthy research subjects."
"Part of what we're doing in the documentary is thinking across both of those legacies and their relation to media and documentary film."
Joynt — whose previous film No Ordinary Man also provided an exceptional entry point into discussions of trans visibility — says that we are living in a world where we are experiencing "the backlash of the emerging presence of trans people across a variety of media."
"So while I do think it is important to be looking back and forward to produce new trans subjects on screen," he says, "I think my work is most interested in the question of what's at stake and for whom — in the imagination of trans worlds, in the finding of trans stories, and then in what happens when we put trans people on screen and ask them to reckon with our choices.
"Something that I think No Ordinary Man and Framing Agnes share [is] an investment in deep, enduring community collaboration. Which is to say, it's all well and good that I'm a trans person who imagines myself to be doing right by questions of trans representation; it's a very different thing when you put your agenda into the mouths and bodies and minds of other people. And so part of the method of the work is to say, 'How are we going to do this together?'"
Joynt feels that this is what changes the shape of the stories that he's telling. To him, the work is "about a lot more than transness."
"We can't be thinking about transness without thinking about race, without thinking about class, and without thinking about all of these intersections that produce some of us as more visible than others."
Framing Agnes is playing in theatres now.