The extraordinary new film Framing Agnes interrogates how trans stories are told — and by whom
An innovative highlight of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, everybody should find their way to Agnes
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
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 Torres's story has long been considered a pioneering moment in trans history, it's given a remarkable new platform in Canadian artist Chase Joynt's convention-defying film Framing Agnes.
"We have heard the stories told by the hunter, and not by the lion," says actress and trans rights advocate Angelica Ross at one point during the film, which premiered earlier this week at this year's virtual edition of the Sundance Film Festival. Made by and about trans people, with Framing Agnes we aren't just being told stories by an entire lion pride — we are given an excavation of those stories. The film cleverly plays with form as Joynt and a team of collaborators come together to reclaim a part of trans history as their own.
The project first began when Joynt (who co-directed another great form-disrupting exploration of trans identity last year, No Ordinary Man) and sociology professor Kristen Schilt discovered Agnes's file in Garfinkel's private archives. The archives, which Joynt describes as a "rusted old filing cabinet" that they had to use a crowbar to open, included transcripts of Garfinkel's original interviews with her.
"To be perfectly honest, when we started reading them I felt extraordinary dread," Joynt said at a virtual panel for the film at Sundance. "I felt like, 'Oh my goodness, what do we have here and what are we gonna do about it?'"
What they did about it was partner up with a team of folks, including Morgan M. Page (who co-wrote the film with Joynt) and actors Ross, Zackary Drucker, Jen Richards, Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard and Stephen Ira. Together, they brought Agnes's story — and the stories of other subjects in Garfinkel's research — to life through a collaborative reimagining. Garfinkel's interviews now take the format of a 1950s-style talk show, with Joynt himself playing a version of Garfinkel, and the actors his subjects. What results is a powerful blend of documentary and narrative filmmaking that interrogates how trans stories are told, and by whom.
"It was definitely cool to see the out-of the-box way that the story was approached," said Ross, who plays Georgia (another of Garfinkel's subjects), at the Sundance panel. "But also it was really nice to walk into a set with just a bunch of trans people. Behind the scenes, the other actors ... everybody seemed to know why they were there. And yes, it was to work. But it also seemed like so much more than that. It seemed like we were doing something groundbreaking."
Richards, who plays another patient, Barbara, said she couldn't help but reflect on the last time she had participated in the Sundance Film Festival.
"It was right before the pandemic, which has become this kind of axis of time," she said. "And it was for the film Disclosure, which collected like 100 years of previous trans representation on screen and just started raising the question of, 'What is the value of visibility and what does it mean to look at our own history and write a new one?' And this [film] kind of feels, in a weird way, bookended to this axial moment in that it's kind of answering that question. Visibility is not an end in of itself; it's opening up a space to look forward, and look at things differently."
Jules Gill-Peterson, a professor of transgender history and author of the book Histories of the Transgender Child, is prominently featured in Framing Agnes and also participated in the Sundance panel, where she said that for her, history is something that "lives in your bones, whether you know the dates or the people's names or not."
"I think as trans people we carry those lineages, for better and for worse, with us," she said. "Part of our struggle today is to have a foundation in the world and to be able to stand up and speak back to those who don't just cast dispersions on us but who want to erase us off the face of the earth by saying we're new, that we just got here, that we're deceitful or experimental or that there's something about us that you can't trust. For me, history has always been this force of assembling your army to come back and say, 'No, we have been here, and we have been here all along.'"
The army was certainly assembled with Framing Agnes, and their reclamation has significant potential to give audiences a truly layered understanding of not just Agnes, but our entire society.
"I think this film comes in and says, 'We're all in this together one way or another,'" Gill-Peterson says. "And we can choose to continue to frame trans people as the exceptions, as the ones who have to account for things — or we can admit that we are all interconnected in this culture and we are all subject in different ways to logics of race or gender or class or sexuality."
"I think in some ways this film comes in and it's not trying to say, 'Well, we did it all on our own.' It's saying, 'This reckoning is long overdue. Our time has not only come, it came along time ago. It came in the 1950s, it came every year since, and it is still coming.' So the point is that we have extended our hands and we're saying, 'Walk with us, come do a little bit of learning, and let's see what we can do together.'"
For more information about Framing Agnes and updates on where it will screen after Sundance, visit the film's website.