‘Framing Agnes’: Stories of the midcentury trans
In 1958, Agnes Torres, tagged as “transgender woman,” convinced psychiatrist Dr. Jesse Stoller, psychologist Dr. Alexander Rosen and sociologist Harold Garfinkel that she was intersex, not trans or a homosexual. They deemed her deserving of gender-confirming surgery, which at the time was denied transgender people, who would get referred for conversion therapy – an abusive, pseudoscientific practice. Agnes was the cornerstone of their published research at the UCLA Gender Clinic until 1966, when she returned to confess that she was assigned male at birth. They were shaken and had to reevaluate their findings, making her an antihero in the trans community.
After Garfinkel died in 2011, Canadian filmmaker Chase Joynt of “No Ordinary Man” (2020) and sociologist Kristen Schilt dug through Garfinkel’s archives and uncovered interviews with five additional transpeople who were unknown to the public. Joynt and Schilt restored this neglected history by adapting Garfinkel’s interviews in a short documentary, which Joynt later expanded with cowriter Morgan M. Chase to make into this feature-length film.
Unlike traditional documentaries with academics discussing the subject as archival footage dominates the screen, they treat the interviews like a screenplay and cast actors to play the interviewees: Agnes (Zachary Drucker, “Transparent”), Barbara (Jen Richards, “I Am Cait”), a trans woman who built an informal, support community, Georgia (Angelica Ross, “Pose”), a black Southern transwoman, Henry (author Max Wolf Valerio), a memoirist trans man, Denny (director Silas Howard), a blue-collar transman, and Jimmy (Stephen Ira), a teen trans boy with supportive parents. It’s refreshing to see a cast of trans actors play trans characters.
Joynt opted to not set/film the Garfinkel interviews on the UCLA campus, instead using the tabloid talk show format Joynt drank in during the 1980s as they delivered the first public images of transpeople. Joynt chose the aesthetic of the renowned late-1950s “Mike Wallace Interview.” Wallace’s studio resembled a black-box theater style, and Joynt shoots the re-creations in black and white, switching to color when re-creating imagined scenes of subjects in their quotidian lives or interviewing the actors about their experiences and insights on playing the characters – somewhat meta. The narrative switches between past and present, re-creation to reality, somewhat akin to Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce’s 2019 doc “Framing John Delorean” (2019), with Joynt being more on target and effective with the structure. To be balanced, the film acknowledges the imagination-filled gaps between what Garfinkel recorded and the three-dimensional lives of those he studied but did not understand.
These visual, stylistic cues help immerse the viewer into Joynt’s ambitious, rapid-paced, comprehensive, experimental documentary, and likely even more so if one is unfamiliar with the subject matter. The timing of the “Framing Agnes” release comes as there has been an uptick in national and global policies denying trans people health care access and sense of community.
- “Framing Agnes” is at The Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St., Harvard Square, through Thursday.