Sundance Interview: “Framing Agnes” Director Chase Joynt

By Morgan Roberts

Premiering at Sundance, documentary film “Framing Agnes”(2022) explores the lives of trans participants of a 1950’s gender study through the University of California, Los Angeles.  The face of the project, Agnes, spoke with sociologist Harold Garfinkel.  The film brings to life the interviews between Garfinkel and Agnes, as well as the other members of the project.  

“Framing Agnes” is the debut documentary feature from director and writer Chase JoyntJoynt, with Aisling Chin-Yee, co-directed “No Ordinary Man” (2020), a feature-length documentary about jazz musician Billy Tipton.  “No Ordinary Man” was presented at Cannes Doc 2020 as part of the Canadian Showcase Docs-in-Progress.  The film won nine awards on the international film festival circuit, including being named to TIFF Canada’s Top Ten. Joynt’s first book “You Only Live Twice” (co-authored with Mike Hoolboom) was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist.

In Their Own League writer Morgan Roberts sat down with Joynt to discuss the film, Agnes, and comfort films. 

Morgan Roberts: Prior to this film, I was not familiar with Agnes and her story, as well as the UCLA gender health research that they did in the 50s. So can you tell me about how you came to Agnes and her story?

Chase Joynt: Yeah, absolutely. So my journey with Agnes really started in 2014, when I received a fellowship to work with my friend, Kristen Schilt, who’s a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. And the fellowship charged an artist and an academic to work together collaboratively around a set of shared questions really broad. And the only requirement was that we co-teach a class. And so we decided to teach this class called the politics of narrative construction, which is this wild hybrid of sociological interview theory and documentary film theory. And we used the case study of Agnes, as an example, as a case of how different disciplines can make very different meaning out of the same source material, and students were totally electrified, because you watch the way sociology makes meaning of Agnes and then psychology and then Queer Studies. And then trans studies each turn, transforming what she means and the choices and the contexts of her engagement. And Kristen and I jumped into the UCLA archival collections to see what we could find. And we eventually, through a series of very fortunate events that are too long for the context of this interview, arrived at the private archive of Harold Garfinkel to literally a building that had been purchased after his death to hold all of his belongings. And we worked for years helping to archive the contents. And upon finding all of Agnes’ transcripts and the transcripts of those who were with her at the same time, we immediately imagined a world for a moving image project from that place.

Morgan: Wow, that’s incredible how, again, something so academic can turn into something so artistic, and one of the things about the film that is very unique, is it’s a documentary, but we see the interviews done between researchers, researcher and research participant, in the form of a talk show interview. So can you discuss what led you to that structuring of the film?

Chase: So one of the things that was really notable to me, when I started reading these transcripts, were the kinds of questions being asked of the trans and gender non-conforming subjects who were in those research spaces. And when you look at them on the page, it is haunting and striking how similar those questions are to the questions that arrive on screen through the lips of someone like Jerry Springer, or Geraldo, or Sally Jessy Raphael. And so I thought, there’s a really interesting opportunity here to collapse those contexts. So what happens if we start thinking about medicine and media together as a structuring device to think about how meaning gets produced about trans people and the enduring legacies of those meetings that we all live and resist today? And, you know, as I say, in the film, I think, in a project that’s thinking about the politics of visibility, the presence of trans people on talk shows is significant and important. But the presence of trans people in these medical and health based research environments is also just as significant. And how can we actually draw a relationship between these concurrent processes that were happening at the same time?

Morgan: Yeah. And what I find so interesting, in addition to not only are we discussing gender politics in the transgender community, but we also tackle racism and the white-washing done in the recounting of LGBTQ+ community history. So can you talk about that as well?

Chase: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the way in which we have produced exemplary cases of trans experience is deeply rooted in white supremacy and classism and organizes us around a very particular set of trans subjects. And I think one of the things that Jules Gill-Peterson, our extraordinary narrator, does in the film is draws our attention to the violence of that kind of singularity, and ask the question, “what happens if we look elsewhere?” Jules just doesn’t leave us there and takes us to the next step further, which is to say we can’t just reattach to a new trans iconic subject, because what kind of pressure are we putting on black trans women in the contemporary moment to hold all of that weight, right? It’s the same problem. And so I hope that one of the things that our film is doing is arguing for collaboration and community and a kind of cohort-based approach to thinking about history. But also to break open a possibility where the future doesn’t collapse down onto one body or one identity or one person.

Morgan: Yeah, because the film really does tackle the intersectionality in the community.

Chase: Yeah, it would be so easy to read the archive for transness, right? But what happens if you read the archive for class? What happens if you read the archive for race and what happens when you’re reading the archive for all of those things? Because of course, intersectionality, at its foundation, is the recognition that these are always already overlapping and interconnected. So we can never read them apart from each other, we always have to be thinking about them together. And so that’s where I think the conversations about work become really dynamic in the film, because you recognize people’s different access points to privilege and possibility.

Morgan: One of the things that I loved so much about the film is, very frequently in documentary filmmaking, we see people almost regurgitate history and regurgitate information. And many points throughout the film, I felt like, “Oh, I’m basically exploring this with you all as filmmakers, too.” So what did you learn while filming? And what surprised you most?

Chase: Yeah, thank you for those reflections. And to be honest with you, it is so exciting to me that that was your experience of the film, because it is so true to my intentions as a maker is to be thinking with the audience about what choices we’re making on screen. And one of the conceits, the early conceits of the film, is that there’s no behind the scenes. Every time we’re showing you a camera, every time we’re showing you a reverse of the apparatus, it is always already on screen. Right? And I think that one of the things that the film revealed to me as a maker is to really trust your participants, and to create an environment where your story can take hold in ways that you can’t pre-plan or you can’t already imagine. And I think that what arrives on screen in our film is really a product of the process of making it rather than the specificity of what was on the page prior to our hitting record.

Morgan: Yeah, absolutely. Well, that is something that I picked up on, because there were several points where you kind of almost made a reflection with the actor, and you know, as you’re setting up for a different angle, or to redo the scene, and I think that that’s an incredible journey to kind of be brought on, instead of merely told about. 

Chase: Thank you for saying that.

Morgan: So, in one of the many stories, there’s six in total. But one of the stories that kind of really moved me and was also very heartbreaking was Henry’s story, who is a trans man who was both denied gender-affirming surgery, and then was, in essence, butchered for surgery to treat his cancer. So one of the things that you do touch on is this cultural fascination with surgery. And I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about that, especially in regards to Henry’s story.

Chase: So I think Henry’s story is emblematic of a broader trend, where medicine attempts to make sense of gender, through the body, and through bodily transformation, right, rather than a psychic or embodied, or spiritual understanding of oneself and one’s identity. And I think what we see through our journey with Henry is an example of someone who was incredibly isolated, in part because of the neglect of the medical industrial complex, and its inability to attend to his body in a way that made sense to him. You know, I just came off of making, this is a bit of a tangent, but I just came off of making a film about the transmasculine jazz musician, Billy Tipton, who died, you know, as a very old man, but in part died from untreated stomach ulcers because he was so afraid of going to the doctor and being outed. And he had lived his life, the majority of his life, as a stealth person. And so, you know, there’s really striking resonances to me and thinking about Henry’s experience also in contemporary contexts where we do not live in a world where trans and gender non-conforming people feel comfortable seeking medical care and the only way in which their bodies are read are through a kind of binary logic of pre- and post- transition.

Morgan: And you so brilliantly brought in the very infamous Katie Couric interview where she would not let go of that line of questioning and you know, there are points in the film where you really show that there has been some growth, and that there are also so many areas that we still have to grow in. So, as you were working on this, what kinds of things were coming up in that type of reflection?

Chase: You know, that’s it. I mean, in no way is this a project that is arguing for social progress. It’s arguing for social change. And I think that one of the things that we get to spend time with in the film through people like Jules [Gill-Peterson] and through the incredible reflections of our actors, is the fact that it is a “both and” situation. Yes, circumstances are different for some trans people in the contemporary moment. And yes, we are experiencing an extraordinary socio-political backlash against trans rights globally, on account of new trans visibilities. And we have to be reckoning with those things simultaneously. And it doesn’t allow us to neatly tie a bow at the end of our film, and it doesn’t allow us to deliver a kind of canned response toward a more possible future. It’s asking us to stay and sit with that complexity and work from there.

Morgan: Yeah, absolutely. And it also had me thinking of the documentary film, “Paris Is Burning,” because it would make a great double feature with “Framing Agnes” for anyone reading.

Chase: The way, you know, and again, this is probably a tangent. But I think one of the things that that connection that you are sparking with, causes me to think about is the politics of authorship and who is telling what story when, right? And we can think about the complexity of the way that Jenny Livingston is remembered as a kind of outsider author to an insider story. And I think that our film is very much an insider story being told outward from that place.

Morgan: Yeah, yeah. And I think it also goes to the fact that, unfortunately, we’re not sharing these stories and highlighting these stories as much. So I’m very hopeful that our readers will go and seek out “Framing Agnes” because we need to be hearing these stories. In the film, the research participants are portrayed by actors. And what was that process like of getting people to kind of join you on this journey? And what have been their reflections back to you after finishing up the film?

Chase: Yeah, so I can answer that question in a few different ways. The first of which is to note that the feature is based on a short of the same name that we shot in 2018, and premiered at Tribeca in 2019. And the short starred Angelica [Ross], Zackary [Drucker], Silas [Howard] and Max [Wolf Valerio]. Jen [Richards] and Stephen [Ira] actually, were in conversation with us, but had scheduling conflicts and you know, all kinds of things. And so the notable shift between the short and the feature is actually one of narrative attention. So in the short, we’re still kind of relying on personal narrative as the way in which to make connections between the archival subjects and our actors. And I think one of the things you note in the feature is a real resistance to relying on certain kinds of personal narrative disclosure, as a way to generate connection and empathy. And so I think that the connection with the actors from its inception was always based on the sparks from the page of reading a document and saying, This makes me think of Max Wolf Valerio. This makes me think of Jen Richards. And friends and colleagues and collaborators that are in my world and saying, like, “what would it mean to ask someone whose resonances are real, whose resonances really do flow and connect to the people who we found in the archive?” And then in terms of your question about, you know, actor response, I think it’s what you see on screen is as true as the documentary gets; it is an interesting insight into the process of their metabolization of that experience. And, you know, one of the stories I always love to tell is, really early on in development, I went over to Angelica’s house and was talking about Georgia and the connections I was feeling to the character, and she stopped me and she said, “I don’t need you to do this. I know her. Like I feel her in my bones, like I feel her in my body.” And that, to me, is so instructive, because at some point, it doesn’t matter what’s on the page, even while we’re following it for the purposes of performance. It’s about so much more.

Morgan: They all give such wonderful, very grounded human performances. And one of the things that I also really enjoyed about the film is that we get to see transgender people of all ages and races and class. And, you know, we see the similarities and differences between each of these people, to what part of their collective story as someone who read all of these archives, do you hope resonate with audiences?

Chase: Oh, it’s like such an extraordinary question, because there’s so many different ways to answer it. But the one thing that I always returned to, is thinking about how our project cracks open the myth of isolation that has been thrust upon trans subjects historically, as if trans people have been alone and isolated and without kin and without family. And I think that one of the things that the film reveals and that the transcripts reveal to us is that trans people are loved, and networked and hustling against extraordinary odds. And for all of the ways that our film traffic’s and really spends time in the complexity of their experience and the institutional violences that controlled and informed much of their life, we also arrive in the sequence about love, where you watch every single person in that archive, reflect on how loved they are, and how engaged they are with their worlds. And that, for me, is such an enduring gift.

Morgan:  And how many of them had loving strong families, which isn’t what everyone wants? Um, so, there are so many ways that people can research and find information about how to be a good ally to the trans community, and some of it’s very misguided, but, do you have some places that you’d like to direct people to? So that they can kind of learn more about the trans community, about Agnes or any similar stories?

Chase: It’s such an interesting question. You know, I learned so much, we just brought an executive producer onto the project, Alex Schmider, who’s extraordinary and who works as the Associate Director of Transgender Representation at GLAAD and is a producer on really important trans docs like “Changing the Game” and “Disclosure.” And one of the things that Alex does so beautifully, and so seamlessly, is tries to attend to various levels of knowledge and understanding about transness. And so you know, if I can elevate him in this, in this interview, I would be so happy to do so. But the other thing that I think is opened as a possibility in our project is to actually follow the flow of those within it, right? We don’t always need orgs giving us one-on-ones about how to manage and understand difference. We can actually be following the lead of those who identify themselves as speaking subjects of the movement.

Morgan: To end interviews, I love softball-type questions, just because, you know, we need a little light heartedness. Um, so, first one is always what is your favorite comfort film?

Chase: It’s so easy for me to answer and thank you for asking this question. My favorite movie of all time is “Notting Hill.”

Morgan: Classic.

Chase: It’s a piece of cinema perfection.

Morgan: And another one I like to ask is, who is a historical person from an underrepresented community that you think that more people should know about and why?

Chase: I would love to spend more time learning about “Little Ax” Broadnax, who is the black transmasculine musician, gospel musician who was gigging in The U.S. in the mid-20th century

Morgan: Amazing. What was the last thing that you binge-watched?

Chase: I’ve been trying to finish a movie, so I haven’t been binge watching anything. Really? Let me really think about it for a second… “Euphoria”.

Morgan: Oh, yeah. That’s a good one. And a new season’s out too.

Chase: Yes, exactly.

Morgan: What is the film at Sundance that you’re interested in seeing and why?

Chase: We’re so excited to see “Sirens” by Rita Baghdadi. A queer coming of age music doc, about a girl band from Devon from Lebanon.

Morgan: Who is someone in your field, another filmmaker, actor, cinematographer that you want to work with one day and why?

Chase: Oh, my goodness. I love these questions. I love these questions. Can I take a kind of like side road in that question, which is to say, I think that the team we’ve built around “Agnes” should continue and extend beyond it’s one project formation. I have many hopes and dreams to continue writing and collaborating and working with Morgan M. Page as one particular example.

Morgan: That’s wonderful. And, you know, sometimes you see filmmakers collaborating with the same people and it’s because it works. 

Chase: That’s exactly right. 

Morgan: And what was your favorite film last year?

Chase: My favorite film was not from last year, but it was “Incendies” by Denis Villenue, are you familiar with this film?

Morgan: I have heard of it, but I’m still catching up on his filmography.

Chase: Oh, it’s extraordinary. Totally extraordinary.

You can see “Framing Agnes” now at the Sundance Film Festival.  Second screening for the film is at Monday, 24 January 2022 at 10:00AM MST.  Tickets available at https://festival.sundance.org.  To learn more about “Framing Agnes,” head over to https://www.framingagnes.com.  “Framing Agnes” can also be found on Instagram and Twitter, @framingagnes 

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