This conversation is presented in partnership with the Refocus Film Festival, a four-day celebration of the art of adaptation and hosted by Iowa City’s nonprofit cinema, FilmScene. The 2nd annual Refocus Film Festival will take place in Iowa City October 12-15, 2023. Passes are on sale now, with individual tickets and full festival announcements coming in September.
“Even when imagining takes us away,” author T. Fleischmann writes in their book-length essay Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through, “it still begins with what’s already here.” That sticky, nebulous arrangement of time is perhaps an apt entryway into director Chase Joynt’s beautifully intelligent film Framing Agnes, which, through its deeply analytical archival investigations, allows us to ruminate critically upon the precarity of both our trans histories and present trans-happenings.
The feature-length documentary, which premiered at Sundance in 2022, interrogates American sociologist Harold Garfinkel’s work with a variety of transgender clients at UCLA in the 50s in order to analyze—and thus reveal—the performative layers of trans subjecthood and survival both in the flesh and in the archives. I had the pleasure of speaking with Chase about the film and its complex, methodical, and ethical approach to trans-history, the limits of documentary as a genre, and the film’s potential utility in a time where rampant anti-trans legislation and attitudes threaten to overshadow the material well-being of trans and gender-nonconforming people.
This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.
Spencer Williams: What’s fascinating about the structure of this film is how it makes the many layers of performance—both creative and historical—visible, often simultaneously. How did you envision and craft the embodied slippage between actor and documentary subject throughout, and what spurned the decision to make that slippage so pronounced on film?
Chase Joynt: I’m very suspicious of documentary as a genre, and I’m even more suspicious of reenactment as a mode of inhabitation onscreen. We’ve all been born and bred in a moving image culture that sees reenactment as a kind of historical citation, and I think that is inaccurate and misleading. Further, I think deploying reenactment as citation rids actors of their capacities to connect empathetically and trans-historically to other people.
Relatedly, another thing that is complicated to talk about is casting—what does it mean to be casting for these roles? If we take that question seriously, it means asking friends and collaborators and colleagues to step toward an opportunity to experiment onscreen and consider the question: What does it look like—and how does it feel—to be both yourself and someone else simultaneously? And to let those slippages or collisions of those boundaries live? I think there’s a lot of productive tension in this method—though it is a method that is very hard to explain to funders! Despite feeling deeply trans in its way of approaching history and archives, we must also make clear and explicit our suspicion of the ways in which we are approaching these histories.
“The film that we’re making about trans life, trans archives, and documentary in 2017 is a very different beast of a film than that which emerges in 2022.”
SW: Building off that suspicion, you mention at one point onscreen that you are distrusting of the framework which suggests that documentary as a genre is a method of authority. And so I couldn’t help but notice a handful of moments where we are looking at an actress getting her makeup done, or the set behind the camera—images that bring us closer to the production of the film itself. These markers help reveal the process of “authority” as both inherently constructed, but also communal. By virtue of bringing actors to the table to work through these histories, there’s a gathering around the subjects and material which allows for so many trans perspectives to come through and be heard, including yours.
With that, how did you negotiate your role as director and actor at the same time? And how did you carve a balance between being both subject-within-subject in front of the camera and the orchestrator of the material behind it?
CJ: The truth is that I’m not alone in any of the roles I play. Even as I am manufactured in the film as a director who is asking questions, I am also doing my best to make visible our co-writer Morgan M. Page. Our editor, friend, and collaborator Brooke Sebold is also behind the camera looking at me, saying “That’s not Mike Wallace enough, that’s a little too Chase Joynt!” There are myriad circuits of feedback always interacting. And throughout, we’re employing the frameshift to contort and reveal what it means to be behind-the-scenes in the context of the film itself. Part of that motivation is to further support the polyvocal approach and to democratize the directorial position. That said, for all the ways in which I try to do that work, the process inevitably reconstructs into a hierarchy, which is part of the reason why I think documentary has its limitations.
Still, the form itself was born of a moment in the archive with my friend and collaborator Kristen Schilt, who is a sociologist at the University of Chicago, and who appears in the film alongside me. We were really taken aback by the kinds of questions that Garfinkel was asking trans and gender-nonconforming people at the UCLA Gender Clinic in the 1950s. In some ways, the form of the film wrote itself when we took seriously the force of his interviews as a mode of historical or archival production. The film is thus trying to flip the power of the interview—quite literally—as a mode of knowledge seeking and making about trans people.
SW: Initially, this project was a short film, and I’m particularly interested in a sequence in that short where voice transcripts from Agnes’s conversation with Garfinkel are heard and mimicked by actress Zackary Drucker. Fast-forward to the making of the feature, I’m curious about the decision-making process of removing the voice transcripts and allowing the actors to interpret the material fully. What informed the decision to eradicate our ability to hear the literal voice on tape in favor of the actor’s embodiment?
CJ: There are a couple of ways to answer this question. The first is a practical and material one, which is that Kristen and I spent years in the archive, and the reality is that the majority of audio recordings are degrading and inaccessible. It’s a lucky coincidence and organizational happening of the archive that we gained access to a small piece of tape that we knew to be Agnes. There were other tapes with many other voices that, for reasons related to contextual information or labeling, we understood very quickly were not those from the cluster of transcripts that we were engaging.
But perhaps the more interesting and complicated response to your question is another question: what would gaining access to a voice give us? This question is the foundation upon which that scene where Zackary is listening and interpreting Agnes from the tape sits. As a director and storyteller at that moment, I’m thinking, What are we actually learning here? Sure, we might learn a little bit about affect, or tone, but one of the things we know from that research is that Agnes herself understands she is moving through a system that is rigged and designed to exclude people like her. She’s already performing a version of herself—with her voice—to survive and surpass the medical gatekeeping. Because of that, I’m not sure what more access to her voice would have offered us, because, for me, the questions of the film are not “Are we getting everything right? Who are these people? Can we go find them?” But rather, “How are we all implicated in this power grab when we attempt to look back at history in this way? What is at stake and for whom in these kinds of archival and cinematic explorations?”
SW: Related to that question of how one might access the past in an ethical and non-prescriptive way, this documentary seems to, at every turn, trouble that question of access and complicate easy notions of “trans representation.” With this in mind, what does it mean for you to pair the academic alongside the actor and what emerged from that collaboration? Additionally, how do you, one, direct an academic, and two, balance the two types of performances we get in the edit: the reenactments done by actors and the academic’s analysis of what is concurrently transpiring onscreen?
“We also had many, many jokes—which weren’t actually jokes!—about the requirement for trans people to feel glamorous onscreen.”
CJ: I love that question. I think “The Academic and the Actor” could be a whole series! You don’t direct academics, to be perfectly frank! But rather, the work is to create the conditions for their extraordinary expertise and opinion to flourish on screen.
I cite early AIDS activist video work as a formative inspiration for creating moving image environments that really highlight and prioritize a critical approach to aesthetic possibility. So with scholars, there’s less scripting on the day and more careful consideration and curation in the edit. I’m a deep believer that people show up to work—when they understand that they’re going to be recorded—to offer what they want to offer. You can ask them for something else, but you are not usually going to get it! You must follow the lead of your collaborators and participants.
You brought up the short film. If you were to watch the short and the feature back-to-back, you’ll notice that they’re very different films. While they have many of the same collaborators and utilize the same methods—granted, the short film was made on a shoestring budget—they emerge as very different films due to their sociopolitical contexts. The film that we’re making about trans life, trans archives, and documentary in 2017 is a very different beast of a film than that which emerges in 2022. I think the same is true for academics: those who are willing to perform on screen come with an agenda based on who they’re talking to, what they’re motivated to communicate about and why in that particular moment.
SW: I find that the presence of academic Jules Gil-Peterson adds such a brilliant layer of mediation throughout the film, and helps to reiterate your notion that the documentary genre is ultimately full of authoritative cracks. I’m also interested in the film’s ending, which frames not Agnes, but Jules herself stepping out along the Will Rogers State Beach shore. What motivated the decision to end not with Agnes, but in our contemporary time with Jules stepping out of frame?
CJ: How counter to the logic of the film if we ended up with Agnes! As a foundational commitment, it wouldn’t have worked. The walkout with Agnes is one of many walkouts in the film: Georgia walks out of the church, and as you note, Jules also walks out of frame. The screentime after the studio walkout is a way to process the various frames that have captured subjects throughout the film. And so, the disappearance of Jules was a methodological requirement; she also needed to escape.
Jules and I started zooming during the early days of the pandemic as trans-artist-academic-friends when I was sitting on an uncut film. We shot the studio footage right before the pandemic and then when everything shut down, I spent a lot of time with many of our collaborators thinking: Why are we making this film, what matters most about it? Should we be making it at all?” It was in those conversations with Jules where she emerged as the person who could say, “Take my hand, walk with me, I’m going to show you some things along the way, and invite you, the audience, into different ways of thinking and interpreting these histories.”
Jules also offers us a real time engagement with the production of the film. The night before we shot with her in LA, we watched rough cuts of scenes in-progress, and it was through that collaborative viewing that Jules was able to say “Huh. When you do that, here’s the consequence,” or, “Do that, and you open up this question,” or, “What’s at stake when that follows that?” Some of the thinking out loud that we gain access to in the film is her reflecting in real time on the edit.
We also had many, many jokes—which weren’t actually jokes!—about the requirement for trans people to feel glamorous onscreen. The least we can do in the documentary space is feel excellent about how we look, in my opinion. Why should narrative cinema makers have all the fun? At one point, I said to Jules, “We have got to go to the beach for reasons that are linked to the geography of the story—the aesthetic possibilities it offers us for a kind of disappearance at the end which also holds us in a place… But also, it is an investment in glamour!”
SW: Location also serves as a thematic tension throughout. There seems to be a push and tug embedded within many of the locations where interviews and reenactments take place in the film. For example, for Agnes, the talk-show/interview with Garfinkel is a location she finds herself in in order to gain access to the resources she needs to feel at home with herself. Likewise, the setting of the church, where we meet Georgia, and Angelica Ross who plays her beautifully, offers a tricky give-and-take of faith, communion, oppression, and dejection.
In thinking about Georgia, and Angelica’s reenactment in particular, why was the church an important setting to include as a container for her part of the narrative? And what do you make of the tenuous relationship between body and place in locations which reflect those oppressive religious and medical institutions in the film?
CJ: The structural commitment of the film is to continue to return to the power of the frame. What does it allow us to understand or think about trans life and history? The opportunity to be in the church—or the garage, or the backyard—are opportunities for a kind of fabulation of the world outside the reach of the research setting or studio. Regarding the church, it is the first time in the film that someone is not talking at you. We allow you to settle into a sonic landscape that is non-linguistic. Brian Michael Smith emerges, and we are made to wonder who his character is in relation to Georgia’s story. Is the man her husband? Her pastor? We get to imagine, to project, to wonder, to dream. But right after that scene, Jules challenges us to think about our investments. She asks us to be careful when developing a narrative around this moment, and more pointedly, to think critically about how much of a burden we put on Georgia (in the archives) and thus Angelica (in the contemporary moment). Jules is addressing both the audience and the apparatus of the film.
From the standpoint of production design, we are always in more than one place at a time. When we are in church with Angelica in the contemporary moment, we understand that it is also the environment of Georgia’s historical re-embodiment. This is also true for the more traditional behind-the-scenes interviews in the studio space. If you were to take a snapshot of a frame of me talking to Max Wolf Valerio, as one example, you would find objects and ephemera from other subjects in the film, proving through design that no subject is isolated in the project. The contextual information around the subject allows us to think in more complicated ways about who they are and what brought them into space.
SW: Totally. It’s been a couple years now since this film premiered at Sundance, and I’m wondering how the recent and ubiquitous swelling of anti-trans legislation and sentiments have informed your outlook on the film. Do you see your film reflecting back the tensions and worries of trans existence in a more amplified way?
CJ: This is a question I’ve answered differently over the course of the film’s life. The film has without a doubt positioned many of our collaborators as speaking subjects of and about a very volatile socio-political moment in ways that they might not have anticipated; however, I think our film offers, as you have illuminated, ways to see that the problems we are currently facing are not new and are in fact deeply historical. I am excited for the film to be of use for as long as it can be and will not be insulted should it ever be deemed irrelevant, because can you imagine what that world would be!
Ultimately, this film does have a clean beginning or an end, and is limited by its own scope and structure, but I think it’s also a thrill to depressurize the film and to really open it up for whatever can be possible or most useful at this time.