Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review: Framing Agnes ★★★

Delving into the gender health research of UCLA’s Harold Garfinkel, Framing Agnes from filmmaker Chase Joynt attempts to shed light on the stories that have been left out of transgender history. Blending non-fiction documentary techniques led by researcher Jules Gill-Peterson, Joynt and co-writer Morgan M Page feature recreations of Garfinkel’s exchanges with trans individuals in a faux talk show narrative. Additional exchanges with the transgender cast of Framing Agnes on the parallels with their own experiences are also interspersed throughout the feature.

During the 1960s, the pseudonymized transgender woman Agnes Torres took part in Garfinkel’s UCLA research with her story told in snippets throughout Framing Agnes’s interview segments. The film positions that Agnes’s words dominated the narrative of trans voices, and aims to showcase previously unheard voices including Georgia (Angelica Ross) a black trans woman, Barbara (Jen Richards) who dispels the myth of trans people and the narrative of isolation, and the stories of trans men Henry (Max Wolf Valerio) and Denny (Silas Howard).

Using the stories of Christine Jorgensen and Agnes as high profile examples of white people who have dominated the narrative regarding trans history, Framing Agnes discusses the debate and legacy of Agnes – someone who misleading posed as intersex to gain surgery. Is she a cautionary tale or a strong-willed fighter who used a system intrinsically set against her to gain what she wanted? Yet Agnes is not the primary focus here and whilst it may have been welcome to find out a little more about her and fellow high profile trans woman Christine Jorgensen , the documentary presumes audiences are well versed in their stories, with Framing Agnes rightfully makes way for more unheard voices.

The style of Framing Agnes is comprised of discussion from scholar Jules Gill-Peterson, discussions with the feature’s cast, and recreated interviews with actors stepping into the roles of the transgender interviewees of Garfinkel. The chopping between these creative styles – not to mention jarring switches from colour to black and white – create something of a disjointed style that can prove slightly distracting.

However the significance of the content of Framing Agnes is undoubtedly important – opening the book on trans history and in a way that is told by trans voices. In doing so, the feature challenges established stereotypes and assumptions regarding the trans community – for example the depiction of Barbara, a strong figure in establishing a safe social space for trans people dispels the myth of isolation and loneliness that it so often perpetuated in the telling of trans stories. The story of Georgia discusses the harassment and cruelty faced by trans women of colour, who were accused of committing crimes simply for walking in the streets. The voices of trans men are often left unheard and Framing Agnes delves into the story of three trans men of varying social backgrounds, exploring their fascinating stories. Discussions from the creatives playing these parts highlights some valuable parallels between their lives and the progress and limitations still faced in trans representation in contemporary media.

Important questions are raised about the battle for visibility and representation versus the safety of anonymity and invisibility, whilst discussion of Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera’s appearance on Katie Couric’s chat show highlight the issues and lack of understanding of the mainstream with a preoccupation with surgery and invasive transition details.

Framing Agnes is a thought-provoking and hugely necessary exploration of trans stories which deserve to be told. Reframing the narrative of trans history being centred on the traditionally white trans woman, Framing Agnes opens the vaults to numerous fascinating voices and welcomes the trans community to share these.

Framing Agnes plays as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s 2022 programme. Find out more details here.