Framing Agnes (2022): Chase Joynt’s Inventive Feature about Gender Identity (LGBTQ, Trans) (Sundance Fest 2022)

Using a blend of fact and fiction, Framing Agnes unites a cast of trans actors and artists to breathe a new life into previously unknown stories.
Zachary Drucker appears in "Framing Agnes."

Zachary Drucker appears in “Framing Agnes.” Ava Benjamin Shorr / Courtesy of Sundance

For his sophomore feature, Framing Agnes, Canadian filmmaker Chase Joynt sets out to redefine the ways through which transgender history has been viewed and taught.
To that purpose, he employs some pioneering genre-blurring methods to revisit the case of pseudonymized trans woman, who was once considered exceptional.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

Directed by Joynt and co-written by him and Morgan M. Page, Framing Agnes world premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Fest.

The feature reexamines the titular trans woman who participated in American sociologist Harold Garfinkel’s trailblazing gender health research at UCLA. in the 1960s.

Agnes, who had entered the study under false pretense to seek gender-affirming surgery, was believed to be an outlier until never-before-seen case files of 8 other patients were found in 2017, revealing the identities of others who redefined the concept of gender.

While completing undergraduate degree in theater and performance studies at U.C.L.A. in 2002, Joynt met grad sociology student Kristen Schilt, with whom he formed a friendship that later blossomed into collaboration.

In 2014, Joynt and Schilt received a fellowship at the University of Chicago, designed for an artist and an academic to work together collaboratively.

They taught a class, “Tell Me the Truth: The Politics of Narrative Construction” using Agnes as case study to highlight “the ways in which meaning can be made and produced by different disciplines and different agendas, so there’s a sociological reading of Agnes, then a queer theory reading, then a trans studies reading,” Joynt said in an interview.

They then decided to make a short film, which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Fest.

After Garfinkel’s death in 2011, a sociologist in Newburyport, Massachusetts, was given all of Garfinkel’s files, and Joynt and Schilt began visiting the archive to help organize its contents.

They eventually found the entirety of Agnes’ case files, which included recordings and transcripts of her conversations with Garfinkel, as well as case studies of other individuals. They discovered that they had more than enough content to unpack for a full-length feature.

“I think the future of trans cinema is one that moves beyond traditional documentary because the formal genre apparatus continues to contain us and repackage us into very palatable, legible boxes,” Joynt said of his blend of fiction and nonfiction. “I’m really interested in thinking across time, across technology, across modes of performance that can open up these new pathways for understanding experiences–not only in the past, but also hopefully in the future.”

Using a rich sociological research and reenactments, “Framing Agnes” draws inspiration from the classic talk show format — which was where people of his generation first encountered gender-nonconforming people.

It assembles a cast of trans actors and artists to breathe new life into six previously unknown stories.

The cast includes Zackary Drucker (as Agnes), Jen Richards, Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard, Stephen Ira, Angelica Ross and Brian Michael Smith.

Joynt plays a version of the journalist Mike Wallace while using Garfinkel’s line of questioning.

A scene from "Framing Agnes."
Director Chase Joynt and actress Zackary Drucker as Agnes on the set of “Framing Agnes.” Fae Pictures

Upon reading the transcripts, Joynt said the creative team decided to focus on the individuals who left behind the most material, because “it didn’t feel ethically proper or right to imagine the world of someone if we only had a small glimpse of a visit,” and soon began to think of the preeminent trans figures who could best connect with their chosen stories.

“We were reading for personal relationships, jobs, race, class, identity, medicalization, family,” explained Joynt, whose other directorial credits include the film “No Ordinary Man” (2020) and the CW miniseries “Two Sentence Horror Stories.” “Because the doctors who were asking the questions had their own research agendas, they often asked the same questions to multiple people, so it was very easy to track. I am pulling quotes and questions directly from those pages.”

Through his communally driven excavation of Garfinkel’s research, Joynt has chipped away at the long-running misconception that transgender trailblazers only existed in isolation, instead showing that these communities have been navigating the world together long before the word “trans” was used in popular culture. “Isolation was, in fact, a narrative produced and patrolled by medicine and the media,” he wrote in his director’s statement.

“If we think about someone like Harold Garfinkel who was, in fact, not researching about what we would now call transness or gender-nonconformity, he was actually researching what he was developing as passing,” Joynt later explained. “Agnes becomes a perfect case study for gender passing, because she has an impenetrable story where she is unlike everyone else that he is speaking to. So her ability to be singular allows her to become the object upon which all of this meaning is made.”