Chas Joynt’s award-winning, solo documentary debut, based upon his 2018 critically acclaimed short of the same name, casts a critical eye over trans histories as marked out by the singular, exceptional, trans person in the popular domain. This follows the documentary No Ordinary Man based on the life of Billy Tipton that he co-directed with Aisling Chin-Yee (2020). The film also throws into relief current debates around sex and gender as codified by gender critical feminism and intersectional inclusive feminism, by demonstrating that trans people have always been an important part of the LGBTQIA movement, with black trans women at the forefront of the fight for rights in the 1970s.
It takes as its object, a study carried out in the 1950s by Harold Garfinkel, a professor of sociology at UCLA, whose subjects were trans men and trans women, and their everyday lived reality. At the centre of this study was Agnes Torre, a trans woman who had presented as intersex in order to receive gender-confirming surgery. Using a hybrid documentary format, Framing Agnes interweaves fact and fiction, past and present, as presented through the lived experiences of the trans men and trans women who, along with Agnes, participated in Garfinkel’s ethnomethodological study. While none of the subjects at the centre of the study participate in this recreation, their interviews are recreated in a chat show format by contemporary trans actors whose experiences and reality both echo and diverge from those that came before.
Zachary Druker stars as the eponymous Agnes and Angelica Ross as Georgia, an African American trans woman, whose experiences foreground the intersectionality of trans identities, and places a spotlight over those icons of the past who are remembered and those who are forgotten. Max Wolf Valerio plays the part of Henry, a middle-aged trans man, whose experience of their place in the world is one marked by rejection and isolation. At the opposite end of the age range and experience of being a trans man is Jimmy (Stephen Ira) a high-school teenager, whose parents accept his gender identity. Then there is Denny (Silas Howard), a working-class man whose identity is more fluid and less constricted by adherence to cis-norms. Finally, there is Barbara (Jen Richards), a community ambassador, whose patience is tested by the invasive questioning. Chas Joynt plays Harold Garfinkel, as an affable, middle-class, privileged professor, who is thrown by the responses or non-responses to some of the invasive questions. Holding the story together is Jules Gill-Peterson, an academic whose subject is trans history, a history which is both hers and not hers, and who provides a commentary on the revisioned interviews as well as on the impossibility of knowing the ‘reality’ of people from the past, in that all we have are incomplete narratives, and ones which are here framed through the white panopticon gaze.
Framing Agnes is an important film, especially given the contemporary climate and concerted attempts to deny trans identities and to eject them from the LBGTQIA community. By offering a variety of experiences across age, race and class, Joynt reveals the richness of trans histories and uncovers the suppressed voices of some of those who came before.
Written by Dr Colette Balmain
*The film will be screened at the Genesis Cinema on October 1st (LONDON) – FRAGMENTS FESTIVAL.