“Framing Agnes”: A Film That “Crosses Gender and Genre”

By Bailey Pennick

Jen Richards is being very honest right now. “As for the process of filming and the film itself, I found it a little bit confusing at first.” She’s talking during a post-premiere Q&A for Framing Agnes, a new film by Chase Joynt, in which she stars as herself and another character. “I was asking myself, ‘Well, which is it: a narrative [feature] or a documentary?’ And then I realized that, in itself, is a very trans question — ‘Well, which is it!’ Rather than letting [the film] just tell you what it is.”

Richards is right; the film in question defies any traditional genre or category box. Through a complex mosaic of fantasized transcript reenactments, candid sit-down interviews, and BTS fly-on-the-wall footage, Framing Agnes moves the conversation about trans history beyond relitigating the UCLA research on Agnes by Harold Garfinkel in the 1960s. Instead, it utilizes other cases within Garfinkel’s archives to unveil more marginalized figures within trans history and opens the door for more honest and diverse conversations when it comes to representation and visibility within the trans community.

This task was a herculean effort, according to Joynt. “We started reading [all the uncovered files] and I felt extraordinary dread,” he says with a laugh. “Like, what are we going to do with this! But, through a lot of collaboration, we had to start thinking about what we were going to do with [all the information] and how we were going to put it together.” Sundance Film Festival programmer Ash Hoyle praised the team for its creativity in storytelling: “It’s so inherently trans — this idea of crossing over between fiction and nonfiction — inhabiting other identities and the building of this rich community.”

At the core of this film is this sense of a strong and vibrant community, whether it’s through challenging prevailing narratives of solitary lifestyles or highlighting a stacked lineup of trans actors as the cast. “It was cool to see the out-of-the-box way the story was approached,” says Angelica Ross. “But it was really nice to walk onto a set with a bunch of trans people behind the scenes… Everybody seemed to know why they were there. And it was, yes, to work, but it seemed like so much more than that, it seemed like we were doing something groundbreaking.”

Jules Gill-Peterson, an author and historian featured prominently in the film, agrees with Ross wholeheartedly. “This feeling of support and trust — and knowing that everyone who has been going on this journey [with us], there’s something about being part of this ensemble that has imprinted on my skin.”

The cast and crew were all buzzing, invigorated with the fact that their film is out in the world now. But the conversation surrounding how trans people tell their stories — if they want to share them at all — is just beginning. “Now that the conversation is on the table, we need to move forward with vigilance and be ready for a little bit of a fight,” Ross says, determined to continue this momentum. Gill-Peterson knows that this journey will be easier with more people: “This reckoning is long overdue and it’s still coming. We’re extending our hands and saying, ‘Walk with us, do a little bit of learning, and work with us.’”