Framing Agnes is awaiting a UK release date.
Having premiered at Sundance 2022, Chase Joynt’s documentary explores long lost recordings of various case studies involving transgender clients at the University of California between the 1950s and ’60s. Agnes – a Harold Garfinkel gender clinic patient – is considered a figurehead in trans history. Her story was initially thought to be the only surviving case study from the clinic until further discoveries were made in 2017. Agnes’ story is groundbreaking due to the rarity of the UCLA archive material in what is largely an erased slice of LGBTQ+ history. The importance of this material places responsibility on the shoulders of any filmmaker in ensuring any film reflects the importance of Agnes’ journey. However, while Framing Agnes works in parts, it fails to explore the source material’s historical significance fully.
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The film uses a hybrid storytelling format as contemporary transgender actors bring six stories to life from the case studies available. Here the style of filmmaking echoes that of last year’s No Ordinary Man; however, Joynt’s solo documentary never quite hits the stride of his previous film with Aisling Chin-Lee. Just like No Ordinary Man, the film jumps between the past and present, with Joynt interviewing the actors about the history of the lives they are reenacting. Meanwhile, a scholarly analysis by Jules Gill-Peterson, a professor of transgender history at Johns Hopkins University, meshes with archive footage and interviews.
While this choice of storytelling worked well in No Ordinary Man, something feels lacking in Framing Agnes, mainly due to its short runtime and multiple stories. However, there is no doubting the power of the reenactments on display. These scenes both stand out and are stylistically remarkable as they use a 4:3 aspect ratio and black and white film to portray historical events. Here Zackary Drucker plays Agnes, while Angelica Ross and Jen Richards portray Georgia and Barbara. Meanwhile, the stories of three trans men are brought to life by Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard and Stephen Ira. These stories are wrapped in emotion as we witness the discrimination faced by trans men and women while allowing the silenced voices of the past to resonate with their present-day performers.
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Meanwhile, while relevant and fascinating, the sections of academic discussion occasionally feel more akin to a university lecture. Here Jules Gill-Peterson’s analysis feels wholly cut off from the performers and their emotional journey. This creates a void between the filmed performance and the more standard documentary format. There is no doubt Gill-Peterson’s analysis helps place some aspects of the transcripts in context and provides an in-depth historical background. Yet I can’t help but feel that her work needed to dovetail more with the performance pieces at the film’s heart.
There are also problems when Joynt and the actors reverse back to their own contemporary identities and discuss the importance of making Framing Agnes and the content of the transcripts they have recorded. Again, the issue of breaking up the continuity and taking us out of the scripts’ reality persists, often abruptly cutting away from an emotionally heavy moment to some unneeded behind-the-scenes material. The result is a somewhat confused and, at times, an unfocused documentary that, while fascinating, never quite matches the power of No Ordinary Man.
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A somewhat confused and, at times, an unfocused documentary that, while fascinating, never quite matches the power of Joynt’s previous work, No Ordinary Man.