Sundance 2022 Review: “Framing Agnes”

Year: 2022

Runtime: 75 Minutes

Director: Chase Joynt

Writers: Chase Joynt & Morgan M. Page

Stars: Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, Silas Howard, Zackary Drucker, Max Wolf Valerio, Stephen Ira, with Jules Gill-Peterson 

By Morgan Roberts

There are many stories omitted from history books.  So, when filmmaker Chase Joynt and sociologist Kristen Schilt began archiving the work of UCLA’s Harold Garfinkel, they uncovered a trove of narratives lost to time.

“Framing Agnes”(2022) explores the stories of the participants in Garfinkel’s gender health research.  Agnes, the main participant, was the face of the research project.  Agnes was a woman of great intrigue in the Los Angeles area.  Her story came to light after Christine Jorgensen, one of the first Americans to become widely known for her gender-affirming surgery.  When exploring Agnes and her story, the archives soon revealed that she was not alone.  Joynt and Schilt found stories of other participants in the project: Georgia, Barbara, Denny, Henry, and Jimmy.  Each participant comes from a different background: race, socioeconomics, age.  

The film explores the interviews between Garfinkel and each participant through the means of treating each interview as one you would see on a talk-show.  Considering sociology’s view of the LGBTQ+ community at the time, the structuring of the film with talk-show interviews is pitch-perfect.  It shows the gawking gaze we had (and many times still have) of the transgender community.  

Even as Garfinkel (portrayed by Joynt) probes and asks leading questions, each participant challenges Garfinkel’s preconceived notions about what it means to be a member of the trans community.  The interviews dismantle many widely-held beliefs about the trans community – that they were alone, completely isolated, and always came out much later in life. In reality, most of the participants were members of happy and supportive families.  One participant, Jimmy, was even a teenager during the study, with supportive parents.  

That is not to say that each of these participants faces struggles because of their identity.  Henry struggled deeply with the medical community and their lack of support for gender-affirming surgery, yet doctors had no issue with maiming him as part of his cancer treatment.  Georgia, a Black woman, faced racial harassment, and was arrested for sex work despite not being a sex worker.  

What makes this film so special is its examination of this moment in time, these people willing to share their stories, and how they connect with our present.  The film is an exploration of these people, and their lives; pondering what lies beyond the snapshots of their personhood contained in the archival interviews.  There are many documentary films that are framed as a regurgitation of information.  “Framing Agnes” is far more nuanced. In tandem with the filmmaker, the audience is transported on a journey.  Questions are asked aloud and are not always followed by definitive answers. 

“Framing Agnes” does not end neatly, tied up with a perfect bow.  Rather, it gives us a chance to reflect on work that has been done in regards to trans visibility and the many ways we can grow. It highlights our blindspots while giving us an access to think-critically as we challenge our own biases in regard to gender, gender identity, and the convergence of our intersectional identities.  


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