Trans history past and present asserts itself in a new angle in Framing Agnes. The film, which premieres at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, revisits the story of Agnes, the transwoman known only by her first name who caught attention as an elusive but pivotal subject in Harold Garfinkel’s gender health research at UCLA in the 1960. Framing Agnes flips Garfinkel’s script, or transcript, perhaps, and invites a cast of contemporary trans actors to give voice to the histories recorded in those UCLA interviews.
Directed by Chase Joynt and written by Morgan M. Page, Framing Agnes is a genre-bending creative documentary that blurs the lines between past and present, fiction and non-fiction, and scripted and unscripted. Segments on trans celebrities like Christine Jorgensen, the first American widely known for surviving gender correction surgery, or Laverne Cox, the actor who broke ground on Orange Is the New Black (and confronts Katie Couric during a probing interview about her body), further explores the narratives created about transpeople by cis-gender onlookers.
As actors perform the interviews with Joynt in a conceit that places Garfinkel’s research in the format of a talk show, like the Jerry Springers that would turn trans experiences into spectacle in the ensuing years, Framing Agnes confronts the dynamics of institutional power that shape narratives and limit agency. The actors weave their own stories within the narratives of the characters they play. These are characters they feel in their bodies, and the contemporary inflections with which they imbue their dramatic readings of Garfinkel’s transcripts challenge the authority of conventional storytelling mechanisms that have shaped trans lives for too long.
POV spoke with Chase Joynt and Morgan M. Page ahead of Framing Agnes’s Sundance premiere to discuss its evolution from short to feature, their collaborative process, and the changing landscape for trans representation and storytelling.
POV: Pat Mullen
CJ: Chase Joynt
MP: Morgan M. Page
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: I want to jump back in time a bit because you had the short Framing Agnes at festivals in 2019, Chase. What’s changed in the process from short to feature?
CJ: We found Garfinkel’s case files in 2017 and the short hit the circuit in 2019. I’m marking those dates because there have been so many significant changes to the landscape of trans representation since we started thinking about the complex and contested legacy of someone like Agnes and her contemporaries. The short reveals our continued attention to personal narratives as the ways in which trans people were trying to claim subjecthood—not only in the archive itself, but also in the context of our own documentary.
Arriving at the feature shooting in 2019 and again 2021, I think you see a turn within our film that was also within the broader cultural landscape, which is a turn away from personal narratives toward other forms of socio political meaning making. As a team, we were interested in exploring what the terms of representation could be beyond the personal. How could we be asking different questions? What else could be revealed about the structures of meaning making that have controlled how we understand trans experiences through medicine and media?
POV: How did you become involved in the feature for Framing Agnes, Morgan?
MP: I joined the project after the short had already hit the festival circuit. Our collaboration really came together after the better part of a decade of being around each other in shared artistic communities and being a “mutual appreciation society” for each other’s work. I have slightly different questions that I’m interested in analyzing than Chase does, but often very complementary ones. Our approach has been to move from strength to strength as we pull apart these narratives and think about the broader meanings we can get from them that are true to history, but also speak to contemporary political struggles.
POV: How do you both find the political landscape has changed for trans rights since the short began?
MP: In the past five years, there’s been an international backlash against trans people and our rights in the world, especially where I’m living in the UK. [Laughs.] I moved here to give up rights. I’m not so sure that it’s had a massive effect on the film, except in so far as pushing us to think less about personal narratives and much more about communal and political critique of the institutions that govern our lives. In particular the medical institutions, but also police, the family, and the state in general.
CJ: Within this five-year backlash, we’ve also seen the extraordinary explosion of trans representational possibility on various screens. Visibility often produces a fantasy of social change that obscures the ongoing context of violence against trans people. One of the moves we try to make in the film is to shine a light to turn the apparatus on itself quite literally to relocate our attention on the violence of these curiosities, and to foreground the relationship between visibility and vulnerability.
POV: The performances really underscore that sentiment, so what was the process of carving out the characters and performances? Is what we see and hear a verbatim take on Garfinkel’s transcripts?
CJ: One of the glorious and irresolvable unknowns of our project is that we only encounter these people on the page. The performative, the vocal, and the affective are all things that arrive and exist in this slippery space between fiction and nonfiction. Early on in research and development, I went to Angelica Ross’s house and was explaining my attachment to and my understanding of Georgia as encountered on the page. Angelica stopped me mid-sentence and said, “I don’t need this. I know her. I feel her in my body; I feel her in my skin.” That was an extraordinary moment because it pushed us to think beyond the language of performance as a recitation or rehearsal of something stable. It allowed us to spend time in this slippery space. What you see on screen is just that: it is verbatim lines from the archival transcripts layered within and amidst people’s personal experiences, feelings, and impulses that arrive on stage in the context of being recorded.
POV: And for you as an actor in the film, Chase, how was it playing Garfinkel?
CJ: Incredibly stressful to be fully honest, but it’s also one of the reasons why I value my ongoing collaboration with Morgan as a true co-author in the project. We continue to reckon with the violence of the interview form itself. We were always reflecting upon the ways in which me as speaking subject, me as Garfinkel, me as Mike Wallace, me as director of documentary, and me as white man become the holding ground for the processes of power that have been unleashed against trans bodies and trans people. In our writing process, we continued to think about how to situate ourselves historically in a way that makes sense emotionally for the film without reproducing those patterns and expectations.
MP: We constantly call attention to that violence throughout the film. We are constantly moving back so that you can see the apparatus of the film and so that you can see who is asking questions of people. And we do it in a way that we can be accountable. When you encounter these people in the transcripts, you think about Georgia and you think about Agnes, but you never think about Garfinkel. He is practically invisible even though he is as much a part of it as anyone. We bring Garfinkel and the interviewer apparatus into the frame so that we understand that we’re not encountering people who are just passively telling their stories and histories. Rather, we’re encountering people who are being pressured to tell certain kinds of stories in a certain kind of way, whether that be Agnes in 1958 or Zackary Drucker in 2019 when we stick her in front of the camera.
POV: It seems as if Garfinkel jumps from interview to interview trying to create connections and narrative associations between very different people from very different backgrounds. Was that something you caught onto while reviewing the transcripts?
CJ: Your question reveals to me, as we translated in the film, that Garfinkel does not actually know what he’s talking about. He is taking the subject matter from one interview and saying something to another person because he’s trying to build a case, Garfinkel was trying to develop a theory of passing: gender passing, racial passing, vocational passing. He’s not actually interested in trans-ness as we now understand it. He attaches to Agnes because she’s a perfect case for him to prove the theoretical understanding of passing: someone who can create a narrative about themselves and their history. Research is a process of excavation and we see the ways that he is trying to take from trans people to produce something about but also beyond them.
POV: In terms of both of your own research, you’ve both published books. Morgan, you have a podcast. How do you both decide which format in which to tell a story? Why make Framing Agnes as a film and not as book or podcast series?
MP: I’m interested in taking history out of the formats that we normally find it in. History gets a bad rap. We treat it as a dull dusty topic that fits in books that nobody wants to read because it will just be a list of people who died at such and such a battle—that’s not interesting. Throughout my work, I constantly try to think of new ways to bring history alive to people, whether that be through a podcast or through a film like Framing Agnes, or in my live performances. I’m just trying to stir those spirits back into consciousness. When I get the opportunity to do it on film, it’s even better.
CJ: If we think about A and B themes in the film, one of the big themes is a reckoning with the production of trans celebrity. In order to do that line of questioning justice, we need to think about the production of spectacle from the earliest days of Christine Jorgensen arriving on TV to Laverne Cox on Kate Couric, and think about how to make connecting threads. To be producing moving images of trans people in contemporary contexts makes a lot of sense.
POV: Framing Agnes and No Ordinary Man both highlight the production process in that sense: you see who is asking the questions, but also the person behind the camera, the person holding the mic, etc. What did you learn while taking that approach project by project?
CJ: The projects, while related, feel conceptually distinct to me. In Framing Agnes, there is no “behind the scenes,” there is no backstage. There are a number of ways in which we nod to you in real time to show how the story is changing. A good example of that is when we snap out of the talk show with Henry, who is played by Max Wolf Valerio. I speak to Morgan across the camera about the fact that our script doesn’t make sense. There are ways in which we can erase that process from the film in service of a more cohesive narrative, but that is the fabric of our process and one that allows our documentary to exist outside of traditional genre specifications. It’s about really engaging in that kind of like liminal trans space where multiple things can be happening simultaneously. The ideas of on screen/off screen or on stage/behind the scenes create new binaries that are, in my opinion, unproductive.
MP: Our process in the film is not to have a curtain. That highlights the way in which the people we’re interacting with, both in the past and in the present, are actively constructing their stories. There is truth there, but there’s also a purposeful and necessary attempt to craft coherence for the audience it is intended for. Trans people are constantly having to give accounts of ourselves to various people in order to get the things we need to survive, whether that be healthcare, or access to justice. One thing Chase and I have talked about is that we have stories that we tell in public, which are often very different from the stories we keep to ourselves or tell in private amongst ourselves. Our film calls attention to that through its format. In the interviews, there are things that Zackary Drucker or Stephen Ira are willing to tell me as a fellow trans person who they can trust will not betray them in the editing process, but they might not tell someone like Katie Couric or any cis filmmaker who comes along.
POV: When we talk about pop culture and visibility, one of the things that’s getting the most attention, for various reasons, would be RuPaul’s Drag Race with trans contestants, either being on the show, winning, or calling out some of the problematic dynamics on this show. How does Drag Race work within the larger cultural conversation for trans representation?
MP: You know, I do watch Drag Race, and I really enjoy it. I think Drag Race is the latest manifestation of a recurring cycle of media interest in gender nonconformity that we have seen, not just since Christine Jorgensen’s time, but since the invention of printed media. The further back you go, the more that you find that every decade or so, we go through a period where we are intensely interested in gender nonconformity. Drag Race hit at exactly the right time because a lot was happening in the world politically, particularly in North America with the U.S. heading towards marriage equality, et cetera. It’s also been a site of controversy, for treatment of people of color, and also for its reluctant treatment of trans people, initially, but that has changed in the past couple of years. I don’t know if Drag Race has had a huge effect on how we think about our work as trans cultural producers. But it’s definitely had an effect on general audiences being open to stories from gender nonconforming and trans people.
CJ: Drag Race is not a documentary. It is a highly scripted narrative project that is designed as spectacle. I think that there needs to be a much more nuanced conversation about the apparatus and the genre intentions of a show like that, which gets marketed and branded as a reality game, but is really one of the most highly architected and orchestrated and performative shows in the contemporary landscape.
POV: I think those are both fair answers, and Framing Agnes also speaks to Hollywood in terms of construction and performance in that the film shows how you can quite capably cast trans people in trans roles. What would you say to actors who are still wondering considering transgender roles without having lived a trans experience
CJ: My fantasy is that we will have made a documentary that gets categorized as such on the festival circuit, but gets picked up for its narrative capacities and helps to elevate the already extraordinary talents of those within it. Why are we in a place where a person in a documentary can’t be put up for the same awards cycles or levels of visibility that people are for narrative works? It’s my hope that our film troubles those boundaries distinctions. I think it’s a way that we can use documentary to intervene on the narrative mainstream.
MP: When I think about trans representation in Hollywood, what I’m most interested in, beyond supporting trans and gender non-conforming actors, is the paucity of our stories created by transpeople. What we need are more stories in which the core creative crew are transpeople who are in charge of telling our stories. We keep hearing the same old trans narrative we’ve seen in cinema, as you can hear about in Sam Feder’s incredible documentary Disclosure. It’s time for us to think more broadly about whether voices are represented. When it comes to acting, though, the biggest issue here is labour rights because actors are workers. When trans actors are not allowed to act in cis roles, but then turned down for trans roles that go to cis actors, we have a big labour rights issue. That to me is a far more interesting question than whether a cis actor should play trans.
Framing Agnes premieres at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival on January 22.