Framing Agnes – Fragments Film Festival 2022

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writers: Chase Joynt and Morgan M. Page

Director: Chase Joynt

Framing Agnes begins with a clever and intriguing premise – the comparison of medical interviews conducted as part of an exploratory study at a Gender Clinic with a chat show, two of the places where trans women and men found initial visibility. Showing at the Fragments Film Festival 2022, Chase Joynt and Morgan M Page’s part-documentary, part-recreation of those conversations asks about the value of that visibility and whether the absence of more diverse voices means trans lives in 1960s American were being quietly lived away from the spotlight.

Playing the role of Dr Harold Garfinkel, who conducted the study at UCLA in the 1960s, Director Joynt transposes those conversations to the talk show format where Aubree Bernier-Clarke’s crisp black and white cinematography and Becca Blackwood’s elegant costumes capture the sometimes spirited back and forth between doctor and subject. It is an engaging archive of material representing white and Black trans women as well as trans men who were asked to reflect on their lives and experiences but the film finds valuable parallels with attitudes and challenges in contemporary society.

And this technique is an effective means of dramatising the conversations about trans bodies that continue today, while ensuring each subject, be it the mysterious Agnes (Zackary Drucker), Barbara (Jen Richards) or Georgia (Angelica Ross), are given a rounded life off the page of Dr Garfinkel’s notes. It allows the actor to investigate the evasions and power shifts within the conversations, and what the audience sees is a collection of people open to discussing themselves up to a certain point but not necessarily prepared to comply with the outcomes of the doctor’s study or the direction he tries to lead them.

Beyond this, Framing Agnes begins to lose sight of its purpose as the film moves away from Agnes, and the ways in which trans experiences have been made visible, to the actors’ reflections on their ‘characters’ as well as their own equivalent (or not) experience. Joynt moves into a green room discussion filmed seemingly off-the-cuff that does little to advance the conversation, while academic Jules Gill-Peterson increasingly takes centre stage in ‘hosting’ the bulk of the film with reflections on key issues and commentary.

What begins as an interesting dramatic and cinematic exercise in giving dimension to some of the first people interviewed and recorded, becomes instead a scholarly discussion on the wider themes and questions for trans identity. Gill-Peterson is an engaging speaker, and these are all conversations worth having, but it means the 75-minutes of Framing Agnes lack focus.

Agnes herself we come to know very little about, other than her restrained contributions to Dr Garfinkel’s record and the knowledge that she disappears into the world at the end of the interviews. Preserves as an icon by this documentary, the effect of Agnes in the years afterwards and the extent to which she actively controls her own narrative, or indeed is framed a different way for the purpose of this film, is left largely unexplored.

Framing Agnes is screening at the Fragments Film Festival 2022.

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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