‘Framing Agnes’ Tells the Stories of Trans Lives Past and Present in Inventive, Captivating Documentary

This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls. You can find all the reviews together here.

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Zachary Drucker appears in Framing Agnes by Chase Joynt. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

It’s no surprise that Framing Agnes, a documentary about transgender women and men who were interviewed in the 1960s as part of a ground-breaking UCLA gender health research project, won both the NEXT Innovator Award and the Audience Award (in the NEXT category), at Sundance this year—it’s one of the most captivating documentaries I’ve seen in quite a while.

Directed by Chase Joynt, Framing Agnes uses the relatively well-known case of “Agnes,” a trans woman who worked the system to her advantage in order to receive surgeries that were usually denied to transgender patients, as a jumping off point. From there, Joynt’s reflective and mesmerizing film employs a sophisticated mélange of reenactments, interviews and archival research to take a far deeper dive into sociologist Harold Garfinkel’s 1960s research and, more importantly, his words of his subjects.

Joynt rightfully identifies the talk show, where so many inflammatory debates about gender and sexuality have played out over the decades, as a surprisingly gripping format. As such, Joynt stages reenactments of Garfinkel’s unpublished sessions with the subjects of his gender research as if they were on a talk show, with the director as host and actors playing the parts of the trans men and women Garfinkel studied. Notably, however, Joynt and the actors frequently break character to talk about their own experiences of being trans and to compare those experiences with their historical counterparts.

The documentary combines interviews with the actors, informal interlocutions during the reenactments, discussions of the process of researching Garfinkel’s archive, conversation with archivists and experts, the reenactments themselves, and speculation about the complex lives of these individuals whose stories are largely lost to history. Together, they form a rich and intricate network in the film, a discourse about trans lives past, present and future. Beyond considerations of gender and sexuality, the film also engages in a thoughtful interrogation of race, class and intersectionality—the words of its historical subjects resonating eloquently even 60 years later.

“How many more stories are there that we don’t know about?” questions Angelica Ross, the actor playing the part of a Black trans woman, Georgia, during the reenactments. Ross’s question buttresses the film, as does Joynt’s contention that Framing Agnes is a film about both visibility and vulnerability and the way they intersect.

An insightful documentary, exceptionally engaging and even playful at times, Framing Agnes simultaneously tells a series of untold stories—letting the trans subjects of Garfinkel’s case studies speak for themselves—while sparking a compelling conversation about what it means to do research, what it means to “frame” and define transness, and what it means to think about trans identity past and present.

Editor’s note: Throughout the month of February, Aviva Dove-Viebahn will review 12 films in total from Sundance—six feature films and six documentaries. Explore all the reviews together here.

  1. Framing Agnes
  2. Master
  3. Am I OK?
  4. Tiktok, Boom
  5. Leonor Will Never Die
  6. Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power
  7. Girl Picture
  8. Calendar Girls
  9. Nanny
  10. Sirens
  11. Call Jane
  12. The Janes

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About

Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.'s Scholar Writing Program.