Director Chase Joynt is as much an investigator as a raconteur when it comes to his documentaries. His first feature, 2020’s No Ordinary Man, co-directed with Aisling Chin-Yee, reconfigured the structure of a traditional documentary by staging informal reenactments of moments in subject Billy Tipton’s life amid talking head interviews and the usual research-backed explanations of a life-lived. With his second feature, expanded from a 2019 short film of the same name, Framing Agnes goes even further than Ordinary, blending historical documents with performative reenactments in a way that conveys the probable emotions of a moment in time which continue to be relevant today. More than that, Framing Agnes posits a complicated question regarding the trans community that speaks to representation and the battle between visible representation and the beauty of a life without the spotlight.
Joynt’s Framing Agnes presents a story that might be less well known to some, but is considered legendary within the trans community. In 1958, a study about sex disorders at UCLA run by Dr. Robert Stoller and Dr. Harold Garfinkel was conducted to explore and understand the at-the-time emerging problems of sex and gender. A participant in this study was a woman named Agnes who used the study to get the gender-assignment care she wanted, only to tell the study operators that she’d lied and disappeared. The entire study continues to have ramifications today with none-so-great as the feeling from the scientific community that Agnes gamed the system. What’s more interesting, however, is in trying to learn about Agnes via the records of the study, Joynt and collaborator sociologist Kristen Schilt also discovered transcripts with other gender-nonconforming individuals who didn’t make it into the research and were, therefore, less prominently known. To tell the story of Agnes, Joynt uses the information they find to do dramatic recreations of some of the interviews with Agnes and five other individuals, which are then discussed and dissected by himself, the respective actors, and historian Jules Gill-Peterson. What should seem like something low brow (putting these people’s lives up for the audience to examine and scrutinize) is, instead, full of joy, sorrow, and righteous anger, not because of a life denied, but because of a life denied the peace of anonymity, the default for those whose identity conforms to their gender.
I mentioned Joynt’s prior film initially not just as a means of highlighting his feature film debut, but because Framing Agnes feels like a spiritual extension to No Ordinary Man. In Ordinary, Joynt and Chin-Yee drill into the life of Tipton, the way his outing occurred, and all the moments in between the public ones as a well-known musical figure. Joynt takes the approach used in that film and takes it a step further, relying less on archived materials as the thing the audience engages with and selecting a more theatrical approach, using performers to play the roles of interviewees, while he plays the interviewer. Pushing the metaphor of exploring someone’s life further, Joynt shifts the context of a scientific interview (with Joynt as Garfinkel) to that of a talk show in the vein of The Mike Wallace Show, a prominent interview talk show of the 1950s. On the one hand, this feels like an obvious manipulation, using performers to take on the roles of real people, using line readings to convey intent that may not actually have been present. On the other, it’s an artistic way to make the more dry presentation of real transcripts come to life so that the audience doesn’t see the past but the present. Part of why this works is that Joynt also shows the audience some behind the scenes moments of Joynt and whomever he’s acting with preparing between takes. This helps to anchor the notion that what we’re seeing is a recreation so as to reduce the sense of manipulation. More powerful than these recreations, though, are the conversations that take place, edited in the middle of and around these “interviews” between Joynt and the performers. In these scenes, they discuss what they think of the interaction between subject and Garfinkel. It may be a subjective interpretation, but each of the performers are members of the trans community and are, therefore, able to provide insight from their own experiences that may explain or allow for increased understanding for the answers the subjects offer. In fact, the personal anecdotes of the performers end up adding a great deal of context that might otherwise be missed if the sole focus of Agnes relied on the dramatic readings of the transcript. Then, to offer a wider view, Gill-Peterson offers a historical context to what the subjects and their respective performers say.
It’s from Gill-Peterson that an idea is presented regarding the notion of “an ordinary life.” As a cishet male, there hasn’t been a moment of my life where I’ve had to expend the mental energy regarding whether I asked about my gender identity. It’s not something I’ve held concern over internally or externally beyond the usual self-esteem issues that go along with feeling like you’ve never fit in. See, the documentary opens by talking about actor Christine Jorgensen, the first widely-known transwoman in the United States who was essentially retired from public life upon discovery that she was gender assigned at birth male. From there, the documentary goes to Agnes and the study, something Agnes used to get the medical care she felt she needed and took the limelight upon revealing that she lied to get it. One often thinks that in order for the world to change, there needs to be positive and visible representation so that others can feel less alone or singular. Gill-Peterson puts forward, without an answer, the idea that it’s not for us, now, to make these other subjects heroes or villains, when, in truth, they likely just wanted to live their lives without having to justify them or defend them. In a culture that’s all too focused on binary thinking, there’s nothing wrong with just being allowed to live your life without fear of abuse, unlawful detention, or death simply for existing. Gill-Peterson does go so far as to suggest that, even without public representation, it’s clear that gender dysphoria is not as current or modern as one might think and that this community has been in existence for decades or more. The difference between before and now is that individuals have the means to make their stories public should they want to, taking control of the narrative (as much as one can as a public figure), or they can opt for a quieter life. Living as a nonbinary gender-conforming individual is certainly not easy, but it’s easier than it was. Personally, I think representation matters and being able to see yourself in art helps to feel less lonely. That said, there’s nothing wrong for wanting to be a part of the anonymous background that makes up most of the known world. Sometimes it would feel good to just be an NPC (non-playable character) in someone else’s life, allowed to just exist.
It’s worth noting, before wrapping, that Joynt earned two awards during Sundance: Audience Award: NEXT and NEXT Innovator Award. Though I saw the documentary post-festival, there’s no question that his work is deserving of this and more accolades. Documentaries are so often singular in their approach, that seeing one which pushes the boundaries between history and fact with narrative and interpretation only to culminate in a tale overflowing with love and positive intention is, at times, as overwhelming as it is inspiring. To his credit, Joynt never declares whether he thinks Agnes should be a hero or a villain or offers personal commentary on the other subjects. I do think it’s fair to suggest that Joynt does feel a certain animosity toward the researchers and television reporters for the intrusive, often insulting way they felt they are owed private information they wouldn’t ask of others. To that, I can’t help but concur. It’s one thing to ask about a person’s experience, especially when, in the case of the study, the purpose is to learn about sex disorders, but there’s a line between curious and intrusive. Joynt never crosses that line, treating all the subjects, even Agnes herself, with the care all humans deserve. That should be the default no matter how one identifies.
Screened during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Director Chase Joynt was awarded both the Audience Award: NEXT and NEXT Innovator Award, each presented by Adobe and both for Framing Agnes.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.