Sundance 2022: “Framing Agnes” Is a Complicated Tribute to Trans Invisibility

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The week after I came out I went to The Strand and bought two books: Gay Berlin and Transgender Warriors. Instead of memoirs or theory, my instinct was history. It felt impossible to take on this new identity without understanding those who came before me. Maybe I felt indebted to my ancestors. Or maybe it was my way of ignoring the overwhelming present, to get lost in the past and the experiences of others.

I wrote that paragraph in October of 2019. It began an essay on a horror film and was part of the mythology I was creating around myself. Theoretically, I write, on this website, generally, as a means of artistic expression and to provide a visibility for other trans people that I myself greedily craved. But in this writing I also craft a persona. I’m not sure I understood that in 2019. It had only been a year since I’d had my first piece published on Autostraddle and I was still high on the thought of being a (very) minor internet celebrity. I equated my performance of vulnerability with truth. I trusted the story I told about myself. And I felt validated when that story connected with others. I guess I’m still doing that right now.

Chase Joynt’s experimental documentary Framing Agnes begins as a tribute to visibility before evolving into the exact opposite. The conceit appears simple — trans actors perform transcripts from the 1960s gathered at UCLA’s gender health research facilities. Joynt plays the researcher Harold Garfinkel and the film combines talk show recreations of the transcripts with actor interviews as well as a thread of interviews with trans historian Jules Gill-Peterson.

When I saw the short film Framing Agnes in 2019 it struck me as a reclaiming of trans history. The actor recreations were a way of bringing these forgotten trans people to the present, to humanize them in a way history books have not. The feature — like our histories — is a film of contradictions, so I believe all those things are still accomplished. But this time the insufficiency of the project is also underlined. The film is filled with great performances from actors you probably know — who if you’re trans and reading Autostraddle you definitely know — people like Jen Richards and Angelica Ross and Silas Howard, who have spent years risking visibility to better our trans world. Zackary Drucker who plays Agnes was one of the first trans people I personally looked up to because of her work on Transparent and then even more once I found her own film work.

Most of us have people like this, either people we met in real life or people we saw in media. We looked to these people as we tried to shape ourselves. What Joynt and co-writer Morgan M Page — another of my early trans icons — do so well is honor this search while illuminating its limitations. It’s lovely that I could ride the subway home from my first electrolysis appointments listening to Page’s trans history podcast One from the Vaults and feel less alone. But I don’t know Page and don’t know the people whose lives she was discussing, just like she doesn’t know those people either.

The moments in the film where the actors discuss their “characters” and what tone to impose on these transcripts reveals in a sense the greatest truth. This discussion of performance is one these individuals had to have with themselves as they prepared to talk to this cis white man. They had to decide how they were going to present to him, when they were going to push back against his misconceptions, and when they were going to hide within his assumptions. And even as these trans actors seek to embody these individuals they are limited themselves by their own perspectives.

Trans artists are often forced to consider a cis audience when making work. And Framing Agnes will play just fine for a cis audience. They can experience the shock of these trans histories, the surprise that a Black trans person and an adolescent trans person are both included. But the film also pushes back against that shock, against the replacement of our contemporary icons with these ones from the past. Maybe this will cause cis people to pause, and for a trans audience — or at least for my individual trans self — this is where the film holds its greatest power.

After a painful moment with Georgia, the woman Angelica Ross is portraying, the film cuts to a dreamy image of Ross as Georgia in a church. Suddenly, noted network TV trans actor Brian Michael Smith appears. He saunters over and sits beside her. The film seems to provide Georgia a peaceful escape, a moment of spirituality, a dreamy trans hunk to sweep her off her feet. It’s sweet. It’s corny. It’s wrong.

“I feel this responsibility for Georgia that is totally inappropriate,” Gill-Peterson interrupts. She emphasizes that she doesn’t know Georgia and then she compares herself to Garfinkel. “There’s what I think I know about her, there’s what I want her to mean for me, and I’ve had to work really hard in my life to understand that that’s also how I’m treated in the world.”

I love learning about trans people from history. I love experiencing trans art. I love connecting with other trans people whether that’s socially or parasocially, whether they’re alive or long past. And I love sharing myself with other trans people — my art, my story. But all these things have limits. Framing Agnes is about those limits. It’s about the truths we share and the truths we will never know. It’s about how this is what makes us human, this is what we’re fighting to achieve. It’s visibility and invisibility all at once. It’s an elusive tribute fitting for these trans people of the past — except, of course, I can’t know that for sure.


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Drew Gregory

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 267 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. How did I just connect Silas Howard with By Hook or By Crook, one of the first FTM trans movies I had seen. I bet that’s not available to stream anywhere. I wish earlier queer/trans film were more accessible.

  2. Drew, you’re doing a great job with these reviews! Your description of Mars One made me go to the Sundance website in hopes of being able to see it; now having seen the prices I’m just bookmarking that and this to look for later. :)

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