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#HotDocs22 Review: Framing Agnes

May 1, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Hot Docs Film Festival runs from April 28th to May 8th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

In 1958, a trans woman under the pseudonym Agnes Torres convinced the gender clinic at UCLA that she had been born intersex in order to obtain cross-sex hormones and surgery, only to come back later on and reveal the lie. Filmmaker Chase Joynt explores the complicated legacy of Agnes and her place within the trans community in his new documentary Framing Agnes, with her either being viewed as a fraud or a pioneering trailblazer who did what she needed to do at the time in order to live as her most authentic self.

Expanded from his 2019 short of the same name, the film unfolds around black-and-white reenactments done in the style of a classic talk show, with Joynt taking on the role of a TV interviewer talking to Agnes, who is portrayed by trans actress Zackary Drucker. With Agnes’s story serving as the main through-line, Joynt also delves into the case files of other participants in the same study at UCLA, which was run by a researcher by the name of Harold Garfinkel in the 1950s and ’60s, using a cast of trans actors to bring them to life. The talk show conceit is significant, with many trans people of a certain age having first seen themselves represented through exploitive daytime television segments.

Much like the excellent documentary No Ordinary Man, which was co-directed by Joynt and employed a similar meta structure to tell the story of musician Billy Tipton, the most powerful aspect of Framing Agnes is how it uses stories from the past to explore lived experience now. Because many of these stories only exist in case files and written transcripts, with several of the subjects from Garfinkel’s study having simply blended into suburban life post-transition, Joynt and his cast balance this by talking about their own experiences in between the re-enacted interviews.

If this film lacks some of the singular focus of No Ordinary Man, it still sparks a thought-provoking conversation about trans people then and now, how they have always existed, and the barriers they have faced and continue to face. One of the most fascinating discussion points that emerges is how increased visibility has allowed many trans people to stop hiding their identities and live openly, but has also made it harder for them to be stealth. Buoyed by Joynt’s unique narrative structure, Framing Agnes serves as an engaging and poignant dive into mid-20th century trans history.

Screenings:

Sunday, May 1st – 8:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Thursday, May 5th – 5:45 PM at Varisty 8

The film is also available to stream across Canada for five days starting on May 2nd at 9:00 AM.

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