Framing Agnes is all about the reclamation of a divisive figure in transgender history: Agnes, who took part in Harold Garfinkel’s UCLA gender studies program in the 1960s. In a rather unconventional style, this film (which only clocks in at just over an hour) intersperses vintage reenactments of never-before-seen Garfinkel transcripts amongst present-day interviews with various trans personalities. It shows, without doubt, that trans history runs deeper than most would initially suspect. A subset of people were out living their truths regardless, existing between that space of masculinity and femininity. Trans people have always been here, even if one has been too blind to notice.
Agnes lied her way into UCLA to get reassignment surgery—is she a cautionary tale, or a transgender icon? People seem to have strong opinions either way, and the morality and validity of the story herein serves up solid arguments in either direction. Trans historians and cultural figures not only delve into these case studies, but how they are living their own version of ‘truth’ in their day-to-day experience. Interesting commentary, including the pros and cons of expanding visibility and the initial reluctance in gay communities to accept trans as part of their umbrella, is touched upon. Framing Agnes loses its way a bit in this sense—I wish the divide between the two separate interview styles was even bolder, and the present-day conversations more hard-hitting. Yes, the reenactments have a unique vintage style, but the individuality in the stories can frequently blend together.
I think recounting these tales is incredibly important, especially as trans and gender-nonconforming people spread further into the mainstream. As Angelica Ross says, we were only hearing these types of stories “as told by the hunters, and not by the lions.” Hearing both perspectives of something is vital in forming a complete understanding either way. In the media, there is frequently too much focus on the body or transition and not enough on their actual lives. Framing Agnes may not be a perfect deep-reaching examination, but it does shed light on these often-overlooked tales. The message may be simple, though remains as important as it has ever been: you are not alone.
Framing Agnes cracked open its filing cabinet when it debuted at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.