Innovative documentary storytelling is on full display in Chase Joynt’s film Framing Agnes, part of the Hot Docs 2022 festival, revealing interviews conducted at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a number of transgender individuals, part of Harold Garfinkel’s research study in the 1950s.
This genre-bending story is part acted recreations of these interviews with trans stars Angelica Ross (Pose), Zackary Drucker (Transparent), Jen Richards (Her Story), Silas Howard (A Kid Like Jake), Max Wolf Valerio (The Testosterone Files) and Annette Bening’s son Stephan Ira. Filmmaker Joynt personally takes on the Garfinkel role of the interviewer in the film.
Agnes, whose interview is recreated by Drucker, participated in Garfinkel’s gender health research as a way to get access to the gender affirming care she was seeking. Until 2017, it was believed that she was the single participant in this research, until eight never-before-seen case files were uncovered, stuck in an old, sealed filing cabinet.
The interviews are paired with the more traditional documentary structure of moments from one-on-one interviews with the participants, but most notably, historian Dr. Jules Gill-Peterson.
“We understood the project to be challenging the very form of the documentary itself,” Joynt told Yahoo Canada. “It required a kind of trust and a kind of investment in experimentation, which is to say, how do we set everybody up for success?"
“I feel like there were moments where I wasn't entirely sure where this was going, but I trusted the process,” writer Morgan M Page adds. “The ultimate structure, I think, was a constantly evolving and morphing beast throughout all of our creative process, really.”
While Joynt oversaw the structural construction of Framing Agnes, the actors who participated in this documentary were required to come to set with quite a comprehensive task. Not only were they recreating these characters, but they also had opened up about their own personal experiences.
“It's a very unusual ask because it defies the boundaries of what we might understand to be a traditional casting process,” Joynt said. “We intentionally sought out our friends and colleagues, and community collaborators who we knew had genuine connection and resonances to the historical subjects that they are inhabiting and performing.”
“It was also very much an ongoing process with the actors in the film, where perhaps, Chase and I had some ideas about things that we would like them to talk about, and then we get on set and find out that actually, no, they have a boundary there,” Page added.
“We had to think in a really agile way together, and with them, about the types of stories we would be telling through this project, which I think is a really interesting rebuke to the history of the trans documentary where subjects are often given little agency over how their stories are portrayed, or what aspects of their stories are focused on.”
'Almost impossible' for trans people to 'get out of the frame of visibility'
In terms of the discussion about trans visibility, Framing Agnes really taps into the how and why questioning, including evaluating the people in power and systemic structures that frame who is visible, and who can be visible.
“I think that we as trans cultural producers who identify as being steeped in conversations about the politics of representation and the politics of visibility, we feel tired of the routinized ways in which it gets articulated and so we knew from the start that our project had to ask a different set of questions” Chase Joynt said. “What does it mean to be thinking about opacity, to think about privacy as necessary modes of political protection?”
“It is possible to make these kinds of critiques because we are actually making a project that's coming on the tails of what people understand to be the transgender tipping point and where there has been a kind of increase in a conversation about visibility, that we're able to say, ‘wait a second, not so fast, what else is there?’”
Morgan M Page added that it’s “almost impossible” right now for trans people to “get out of the frame of visibility and representation politics.”
“What our film and the communities we inhabit are dealing with is the fact that actually, visibility and representation are not all positive for trans people,” Page said. “We are the most visible right now that we've ever been and also the most endangered that we've ever been, and I think we are trying to highlight that.”
'What’s the right to be invisible?'
It’s through Jules Gill-Peterson that we’re guided through this impressive story that expands the frame, so to speak, of trans history and trans visibility that has been restricted by a narrow lens. It’s Gill-Peterson’s way of interpreting and analyzing this archival information, linking it to more contemporary touchstones, adds an impressive level of dynamism and that pulls you in.
“One of the many lies of visibility is that being seen is your emancipation,” Gill-Peterson says in Framing Agnes. “For people whose visibility put them in danger, I don’t know why we don’t ask them more often, what would it feel like to be left alone? What’s the right to be invisible?”
A particularly compelling story in Framing Agnes is that story of Georgia (Angelica Ross), shining a light on the intersection of trans, Black individuals.
“The reality is, is that we live in a world that has been dominated by stories being told by white people, by the people who have the most power within white communities,” actor Angelica Ross says. “We have heard the story told by the hunter and not by the lion, and not by the lions who not only fought back but got away.”
“How many more stories are there out there that we don’t know about?”
Gill-Peterson states in Framing Agnes that it is “hard to sit with Georgia.”
“I think a lot was put on her shoulders at the time and so we encounter her in that context, and there’s only so much we can do, we’re not there,” Gill-Peterson says in the documentary.
“Beyond the initial surprise to find a brilliant, pedagogical, well spoken, buttoned up Black trans women in the 19th century speaking back to Garfinkel, beyond that there are some real tough questions about what she let slip about what her life really is, and the way that she tries to package that for him so that he can understand it, because there’s a colour line separating the two of them.”
Morgan M Page believes that there is a “responsibility” to talk about trans history as being more than just the white women, which she highlights has been primarily how this history has been discussed.
“There's an incredible amount of harm done when we imagine a person to be alone in any particular place historically, or in the contemporary moment, and so structurally in the film we understand that while Georgia is the only Black trans person in the archival collection that we found in that filing cabinet,... Georgia was by no means the only Black trans woman who was circulating in these spaces,” Chase Joynt added.
'Trans people are not the exception and cis people are not the status quo'
For audiences who watch Framing Agnes, Chase Joynt and Morgan M Page hope they not only take this as a moment in history, but think about how we use history today.
“'I’m hoping people can take that away and reflect on their own investments in history that they hear about. Why do they care about it? What does it mean to them, and how might they sometimes be misusing it?” Page said.
“Trans people are not the exception and cis people are not the status quo, [we] are all actually reckoning with problems of gender and problems of misogyny, and patriarchy and racism and institutional violence,” Joynt added.
“If we approach that from a shared understanding that we are all implicated, and we de-exceptionalize trans people and therefore take the responsibility off of their shoulders as the agents of all social change,...we get to have a very different conversation about where we're at and where we're going.”