'Framing Agnes': Trans History Trapped in the Present [Review]
While certain legacies and icons of queer history are now more well-known than ever before, their trans siblings have largely remained in the shadows. Framing Agnes, like fellow Sundance alumni Disclosure before it, want to fill in those gaps but whether these documentaries fully do so is and will be hotly contested as the film reaches wider audiences.
Based on director Chase Joynt's short film of the same name, this docudrama combines scripted 1950s period drama starring some of the best and brightest trans talent working today with behind-the-scenes discussions of their "characters" and how much (or how little) has changed since then. The intimacies, impulses, and ideas of these real-life trans people who are no longer with us are exhumed and assumed with a notable sensitivity and closeness, but yet it's still ultimately frustrating to see play out in this seemingly historical context.
Given how little has been documented about not just these individuals but trans people as a whole at the time, this approach is both understandable and irresponsible. You need quite a bit of content to quadruple the runtime of your short film, but whether that conjecture is valuable or ethical is much more pressing to me. What strikes me most about this historical documentary is how little history is in it.
I adored Joynt's 2019 short film, which he co-directed with Kristen Schilt, a sociologist specializing in gender and sexuality at The University of Chicago, but this elongation almost undermines how successful that twenty-minute piece of filmmaking was. Where brevity and introspection once were is now replaced with meandering conversations that have little or nothing to do with the individuals supposedly at this film's center.
Do not get me wrong; Zackary Drucker, Jen Richards, Silas Howard, Angelica Ross, and Stephen Ira Cohen are all extraordinary wise and their thoughts are indisputably worth hearing. But the people I most wanted to see and learn from were the historians, sociologists, and researchers who mainly exist in the film's periphery. The main exception to that is historian Jules Gill-Peterson, whose nuanced & thoughtful care for these figures is the beating heart of this movie. She even acknowledges the limitations of her position as a contemporary researcher, something I wish everyone else did as well, saying, "There's what I think I know about her. There's what I want her to mean for me." But ultimately we cannot fully know these people or how they felt. Our modern socialization and pre-conceived notions will always prevent that. And at least one person here is willing to say so.
Perhaps most glaringly absent in the film is Schilt, whose credit on the film went from co-director to researcher in the jump from short to feature. She's seen briefly in the background early on in the film but then fades until its very end. And that demotion feels emblematic of my larger issues with the film, where the famous faces & their contemporary opinions overshadow the unique realities of the past. In the short film, these backstage chats complemented the scripted scenes. Here, they clash.
There's still a great deal to be gleaned, enjoyed, and impacted by in Joynt's feature. But I return to the title Framing Agnes, and whether by the film's end we've learned much at all about this titular icon or framed her life (what we know of her life at least) in a way that makes us see things differently. The answer to both, for me, is sadly no.