Hot Docs ’22: Framing Agnes obscures its own powerful premise and story

In the 1950s and 60s, researchers at UCLA conducted a study into sex disorders. The resulting archive of data contains a cross-section of trans history in the form of interviews conducted with the study’s participants. One of the participants -a woman known only as Agnes- used the study to receive gender-affirming care and then seemingly disappeared.

With Framing Agnes, director Chase Joynt takes a handful of the stories collected in the UCLA study and presents them to the audience. The interviews themselves are re-framed as interviews on a late-night talk show and performed by trans performers. The performers themselves, along with trans researcher and advocate Jules Gill-Peterson, are also given the opportunity to reflect on the people they are portraying as well as their own life experiences.

The former is a brilliant take. Unfortunately, the latter interrupts the stories that we really want to hear. To put it more succinctly: Framing Agnes fails to get out of its own way.

In essence, Framing Agnes is three movies in one. The first is a recreation of these important and incredibly moving stories. The second is a behind the scenes documentary about making the first story, and the third is a companion piece wherein the performers relate their own life stories. The issue is that each of these keeps the others from achieving anything significant. This is because they’re constantly interrupting each other, and the film doesn’t have the runtime to investigate any of them properly.

Worse yet, the film fails to frame its titular character in any satisfying way. We know that she entered the study and used it to gain gender-affirming care, and we know that she lied to do this, but there’s no clear indication as to what precisely the lie was or what made it significant.

Framing Agnes ends up being a frustrating watch. On the one hand, a historically significant subject is being investigated, and some deeply moving stories are being told. On the other, the film is structured in such a way that it obscures the subject and the stories behind its own making-of. As a result, it feels very much without a sense of focus. While there is still a lot to say about the parts in Framing Agnes that work, the film is a disappointment overall.

2022 Hot Docs
Rating: 2/5

Framing Agnes played as part of Hot Docs 2022.


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