‘Framing Agnes’ recreates the real life of trans people in the 1950s

The edgy film features a cast of trans actors and premieres at this year’s Hot Docs festival.

The movie framing agnesa Sundance award winner screening at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival this month, features a cast of trans actors who take true case files from a 1958 UCLA sociology study and dramatize them like a talk show, with studio principal investigator Harold Garfinkel as your host Here, director Chase Joynt and historian Jules Gill-Peterson discuss the art of finding community in trans storytelling.

the transcripts

Fate and a crowbar led to the recovery of the subjects’ transcripts in 2017. UCLA researchers had previously delved into Garfinkel’s private files, but missed a drawer that was rusted shut. Armed with the recovered records, Joynt and her friend Kristen Schilt began making connections between the biographical details on the page and the trans actors who could bring them to life. For example, the character of Henry, whose corresponding subject is a writer, is portrayed by poet and memoirist Max Wolf Valerio, channeling his lived experience of trans masculinity into the role. “We can’t resurrect these people,” says Gill-Peterson. “But they live in the way they tell us what is difficult and joyful about the trans lives we live today.”

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The interview

While poring over Garfinkel’s research, Joynt found himself more interested in the questions the participants were asked than in their answers. “I thought, ‘What if we spent more time thinking about interrogation modes instead of disclosure modes?’ ” he says.

FramedThe stripped back ensemble, tiny table and uncomfortable wooden chairs strategically convey a sense of alienation. But even on the bench, the subjects back off. Joynt describes a moment of on-screen resistance in which Garfinkel interviews Barbara (Jen Richards) and tells her that she talked to another lonely, troubled guy. “I’m not worried,” Barbara replies defiantly.

the recreaction

To achieve a vintage look and feel, Joynt’s team focused on 1950s clothing, décor, and color palettes, rather than looking for evidence of what each individual subject looked like. “We don’t have images of any of our file subjects,” says Joynt. “I am so happy that they are not caught that way.” He says that, in the past and present, invasive and objectifying research has done extraordinary harm to trans and gender non-conforming people. “That lack of reference is one very small way that these real people managed to escape from a new power clutch of the social science world that they were trapped in,” says Gill-Peterson.

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The scene

Draw a visual reference of the one-to-one format of The Mike Wallace InterviewGarfinkel (played by Joynt himself) sits across the table from Agnes (Zackary Drucker), a young transgender woman seeking the gender-affirming care she needs. The film takes viewers through the development of each character, alternating between re-enactments and living room confessionals with the cast. Re-enactments show how trans people are put under the microscope, while current reflections on trans politics, visibility and representation help viewers discover why this is so. “It allows us to settle into those moments, then come back out and say, ‘But why are we here?’ Joynt says.

This article appears in print in the May 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The story of us, starring us”. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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