Transcripted lives

Hannah Piekarz watches ‘Framing Agnes’.

This inventive documentary film follows the cases of five transgender patients who visited the UCLA sex and gender clinic of Robert Stoller and Harold Garfinkel in the late 1950s. 

The film uses previously unseen transcripts of interviews between Garfinkel and his patient that were found in the University archive, in order to recreate the period scene in the style of a black and white filmed clinic interview. This switches into a wider shot in colour, where the doctor, played by director Chase Joynt, talks to the trans actor in the role of patient to unravel the meaning of the interview in their eyes. In this more casual style we see the production team behind the scenes. We then follow the actor in a single person vox-pop in a modern setting to discuss their own lived experience of the themes that were brought up. Additional depth comes from historian Jules Gill-Peterson, who gives us background on the use of archive and the trans-perspective. 

The film begins with Pathé-style press coverage of Christine Jorgenson’s glamourous return to the US in 1952, back from surgery overseas in Denmark, the first American person to become widely known for gender transition. Her story is used because all the patients referenced her transition at some point in their files. Switch to modern day, where Chase brings the idea of the 1980s lurid talk show as his personal introduction to the concept of transexual identities, and how the media portrayal gets discussed in wider society.

Agnes, a middle class LA blonde housewife, portrayed as a middle-aged trans woman by Zachary Drucker, lives a solitary trans life but is iconic as a case study because she tricked the University team into treating her as intersex and thus gaining medical treatment for her condition. Barbara, a similarly middle-aged brunette played by Jen Richards, has built a support network within the trans community. Then Georgia, played by Angelica Ross, a working class black trans woman, discusses the threat and harassment she receives from the Police. We meet Henry, played by Max Wolf Valerio, a middle aged trans man who has written a biography of his life, and who faces his gender issues alongside a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and then Denny, played by Silas Howard, who is a teenage trans boy. 

They discuss navigating life as a trans person; antagonism with authorities and the law, finances and jobs, gender identity, sexuality and visibility. The modern-day contemplations mirror this: each trans actor has similarities and differences that they pick out, and each story is subtle and nuanced. As with life, there is no massive backstory that we are introduced to. We spend a brief time in the face-to-face period interview, just as with real life – a fleeting encounter to gather information and make our judgement about people, and then broaden our discussion in the present day. We glance the lives of patients and actors, take impressions of their personality and imagine scenes from the stories that they share with us. 

What is special is the characters that are brought to life from the transcripts. They have senses of humour, and a playfulness with their interviewer that we wouldn’t get to read in a case study. They have become real people through the re-enactment. 

Also brought up are questions of who owns power, the structural and institutional power held by the University team. Being a doctor, academic, white, cis and male confers an invisibility to the research team that in reality must affect the research that they collect and the history that is documented. The research takes place at crucial period in gender studies, where categories are being defined, and people are becoming classified according to their presentation. Lines are being demarked, and people are being grouped into diagnoses. Our understanding of an individual can become a tick-box exercise, in danger of becoming impersonal.

Visibility is a big issue highlighted. All the patients require is to pass unnoticed, and settle into a peaceful life. This brings us back to the publicity-seeking sensationalism of the newsreels and talk shows as an anomaly which draws the attention of the wider curious public. And the curious public will hopefully be drawn in to see this film. It is refreshing to see the faces onscreen of the trans team behind the film, along with their frank and educated views. The highlight is the additional spin added by the research team, and historian Jules Gill-Peterson in particular, reflecting on her own academic work as perhaps trying to exorcise personal issues, and the tension that her work in the field caused to her own identity. 

Framing Agnes has played a few screenings, with a view to receiving a broader release later in the year. My hope is that it generates an interest for a general audience. I recommend it as a discourse on history, power and medicalisation, but also with a personal element from the archive and creative team that makes for compelling viewing – through empathy and understanding, not sensationalism and shock.

- See www.framingagnes.com

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