Canadian director and co-writer Chase Joynt follows up his tremendous film No Ordinary Man, with a uniquely creative reenactment of 1960s research interviews by Harold Garfinkel, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Joynt frames the reenactment as a ’60s talk show wherein he plays Garfinkel. For the research subjects, Joynt recruits several established performers in the trans community, including Zachary Drucker in the role of the titular Agnes, as well as Angelica Ross, and Silas Howard.
Garfinkel was conducting a gender health research study at UCLA in the late 1950s and interviewed Agnes, a pseudonym of a young trans woman. In the interviews, Agnes reveals her struggles and sacrifices as a trans woman, including lying about her medical history in order to obtain the appropriate health care. Garfinkel released his conversations with Agnes in 1967 as a case study in Studies in Ethnomethodology. At the time, Agnes was said to be an anomaly in Garfinkel’s study. However, when doing his own research on Agnes in the UCLA archives, Joynt discovered additional case files for a number of other gender non-conforming individuals who were also interviewed by Garfinkel.
Hearing the words of Garfinkel’s subjects recited by trans actors of today is truly poignant. The approach uniquely blends the past and the present, and highlights the progress that’s been made and the tremendous amount of work that still needs to be done. Each performance is heartfelt, with Drucker a particular standout.
To move the film beyond a simple reenactment, Joynt (as himself) interviews each actor about their subjects. These conversations give the actors a chance to voice their own stories and frustrations grounding the film nicely. A running theme in Framing Agnes is how unexceptional their situations are. Beginning where Garfinkel has claimed Agnes to be an exception, Christine Jorgensen’s story of being the first woman in the USA to be widely known for undergoing gender correction surgery, is labeled the same. Angelica Ross, who gives voice to Georgia in the film, also describes her frustration with being told her story as a Black trans woman is exceptional as well. And while Ross admits to being reluctant in participating in the film, she speaks beautifully about the connection she eventually found with Georgia.
Framing Agnes delivers a strong message for and about the trans community: their stories have been reduced to a narrative that makes wider society comfortable, and it’s time for that to change. The film also serves as an act of justice for Agnes, Georgia, and other interviewees in Garfinkel’s study. Where Agnes’ story was diminished and altered to suit Garfinkel’s desired findings, the voices of so many others were hidden away in a rusted filing cabinet. Joynt’s work as a director, writer, and actor in Framing Agnes deserve all the recognition, and hopefully the collaborative nature of his films continue to not only inspire others and give a voice to the silenced, but create more opportunities for the trans community in the film industry.
Framing Agnes premiered at Sundance 2022. Head here for more coverage of this year’s festival.