Tuesday, November 29

The creators of ‘Framing Agnes’ on the power and complexity of reimagining transgender stories

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Chase Joynt and Morgan M. Page unearthed something special during their most recent collaboration.

Co-writers of Joynt’s feature-length directorial debut Framing Agnes, the pair sat down with The Buckeye Flame to talk about some of the film’s most complex themes — including nuanced conversations about trans history, identity and visibility.

The film follows Agnes Torres, a transgender woman who approached UCLA’s psychiatry department in 1958, hoping to access gender affirming care. 

Along with a handful of other trans, non-binary and gender diverse people, Agnes participated in a case study conducted by sociologist Harold Garfinkel, speaking about their experiences as transgender people at length.

Garfinkel’s transcripts created both an invaluable and unreliable record of their lives, and when Joynt uncovered dozens of them in 2017, he set out to build a collaborative, experimental project that calls into question the way trans stories are found, created, documented and told.

Part documentary and part fictionalized re-enactment — Joynt and Morgan built Framing Agnes around a patchwork of scenes and conversations pulled from Garfinkel’s transcripts, using transgender actors to unravel new understandings of what it means to be safe, seen, understood and remembered as a trans person across time, space and culture.

The film debuted to critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival 2022, and screened at the 46th Cleveland International Film Festival in April, where Joynt was the recipient of the 2022 DReam Maker Award, named for David K. Ream (1949–2017), a beloved LGBTQ+ activist.

When you finally have these transcripts in your hands and you can sit with them for the first time, what is that feeling like for you?

CJ: The truth is that the first sensation was extraordinary excitement and joy and opportunity — followed very, very quickly by a sense of dread and panic and responsibility.

I think one of the ways that I managed the concurrence of those feelings was to start paying attention to the questions — to actually release the pressure from the stories that people were telling about their lives and their circumstances and, instead, switch the focus and switch the gaze to [asking], ‘Who are the people asking these questions? What kinds of questions are being answered? What’s the relationship between questions across transcripts, across people and across time?’

MP: I never got to actually handle the transcripts myself because they’re tightly controlled.

I only got them filtered through Chase and Chase’s imaginings, which I think is really interesting for our film which definitely plays on the line of asking how much of all of this is true? Who do we believe in these situations — the people speaking? Do we believe Harold Garfinkel? Do we believe Chase? Do I believe Chase?

So why choose to present and interrogate our histories and stories as trans people in this way? Why choose to do things differently?

CJ: I think we’re differently reckoning with the legacies of medicine and media and their impacts on trans life. 

We’ve seen the ways that traditional documentary treats trans subjects. We’ve seen the ways in which the medical industrial complex continues to contain and put boundaries and limits around our lives and our potentials.

So it’s necessary and it’s urgent to think about alternative ways to engage these histories — and it’s related to your first question about what to do when we find ourselves in these places. I think that’s where creativity and collaboration and aesthetics really take on new political power and shape.

MP: History is only as important as it is useful to our contemporary moment, and we are in a contemporary moment that’s being shaped by massive, culture-wide discussions about the visibility of trans people, the representation of trans people in many aspects of life, and attempts to constrain and control that based on the idea that [transness]is something new — that it never existed before. We know that’s not true.

We know not only was there this cohort of trans people in 1958 at UCLA, but in fact, we know that trans people — or people who we would today think of as trans — have always existed.

So it’s very political for us to take this up, but we’re invested in taking it up in a critical way — not just through the excitement that there are people in the archive, but trying to think about who those people are to us and why we feel they’re important to us, for good and bad.

Chase, I know you met with local organizers while you were in Cleveland. Tell me about who you met with and why you’re choosing to engage around the film in that way.

When I was invited by the Cleveland International Film Festival, part of the invitation was to meet with trans advocates and trans-centered community groups.

I met with the extraordinary people at TransOhio and the LGBTQ+ Community Center of Greater Cleveland, and these are on-the-ground activists and community-makers who are reckoning with our current sociopolitical circumstances and showing up for one another in time and space and a variety of different ways.

I think we’ve always been curious and interested in the ways the film could be useful, or could be a tool to facilitate and ignite different kinds of conversations. 

One of the things that was really striking to me about that experience is that I was in the lobby of the theater with some of these community members, and I was approached by a straight, cisgender married man in his late-60s who was a surgeon at an Ohio-based hospital.

[He] was immediately asking for an opportunity to get the film in front of his colleagues because he thought it would be pedagogical and instructive as a way to facilitate conversations about trans affirming care.

I think the collision of all those conversations in that lobby was emblematic of some of our broader pursuits [in making the film]. It’s only through the traction and the dynamism of those connections that we can find ourselves there.

We don’t believe the film has a very strong beginning, middle or end. We leave you with a lot of questions and a lot of pathways that need further explanation and animation.

Do you have words for young queer or trans people that are feeling disconnected from their own histories and communities right now?

MP: There is so much to gain from looking into our histories.

I originally got into my work around trans history because I was facilitating a youth group in the early 2010s.  I found that a lot of the young people truly had no idea that there had been anyone else like them before 10 or 20 before that. This was before Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera became such household names, almost like memes on the internet.

As a result of not knowing their history, their ideas about what their lives could be like were very limited. It was a problem of images. There were no images that reflected them.

Giving people access to that imagery opened up a world of opportunities to think about new ways to live. I think in this particular political moment, it opens up a lot of ways to resist and to survive what is an international culture war on our lives and bodies at the minute.

There’s so much to gain from thinking about how activists in the 1970s managed to make massive winds, which could be, sometimes, protesting in the street. Other times it could be casting a spell on a prominent anti-trans activist — which actually happened in the 1970s, which resulted in my favorite headline of all time: ‘Transexuals Hex Robin Morgan’

I think there’s a lot there to be gained, but it’s also not the end-all-be-all. There’s no completion to the archive. There’s absences and omissions in the archive. There’s no way we can look to this archive and think — just like in the film — that we’re going to see absolutely everyone we’d like to see there. For a variety of reasons, a lot of people’s lives weren’t captured by archives.

So we can gain a lot from the archive but we also have to recognize its limitations.

CJ: I love that. The only thing I would add is that we’re conspiring and collaborating in the film, but we’re also trying to protect each other.

There’s something very useful about making visible some of that process.

We do not accept that we have to do things alone, so some of those stories change when you approach them as a group and you can actually live in the complexity of decision making and refine your choices on the fly and find new grooves together on the day.

These are new methods — not new methods as in we’ve created them, but underexplored methods in documentary that I think can produce different kinds of narrative futures for marginalized subjects.

I think these kinds of projects and collaborations hold a lot of queer joy and queer magic. It’s an experience that is so powerful when we’re able to tap into it together. Tell me what that means to you and what does that look like in collaboration with other people?

CJ: I love that your pocket question is queer magic.

One of the ways I’ll approach that question is that I often think about what I would do for free, forever. And while I also want to pay my rent, showing up on the page with Morgan in pursuit of a project like this — showing up in rooms with our extraordinary collaborators, showing up in the edit on various forms of breaking technology in the middle of a pandemic — these are all things I do because they feel like magic.

They feel like queer and trans world-making that exceeds the bounds of whatever project gets made at the end of the day, whatever interviews we give or whatever legacy it might have in a kind of cultural space.

I return to that. I think, ‘Where do I want to be and who do I want to be with?’ It’s really that foundational.

MP: I feel it’s very magical any time Chase and I get together to work on something. It’s just the greatest collaboration of my life, to be honest.

The real magic here is making something for and with our community. I think it is a stronger film because our ideal audience is a really smart, thoughtful, trans audience. 

We don’t dumb it down for an idea of mainstream that doesn’t really exist. And as result, it invites in a lot of people — and that’s the magic. You don’t have to be trans to like a movie like this or to get some of the concepts that we’re working with because we’re having a conversation between ourselves, but one that invites in others. 

To me, that’s the magic. 🔥

Ignite Action:

  • To support Morgan M. Page’s trans history podcast, One From the Vaults, click here. To listen to new and existing episodes, click here.
  • To learn more about Framing Agnes, visit their site.
  • If you are a trans person in need of support, call Trans Lifeline’s hotline at (877) 565-8860 to connect with trans peer operator.

About Author

H.L. Comeriato is the staff writer for The Buckeye Flame. A queer and non-binary writer and reporter from Akron, Ohio, they covered public health for The Devil Strip via Report for America.

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