A Framework for Collaboration
In coordination with Level Ground, we’re profiling the artists who are presenting groundbreaking art at the Level Ground Festival in October.
Below, Ashleigh Hill details the backstory behind the new Level Ground production, Framing Agnes.
“I’ve always been interested in projects that are experimental in nature,” Samantha Curley, Level Ground’s executive director explains as she details the beginnings of the organization’s new partnership model. “Projects that are deeply relational and connected to Level Ground are what are interesting to me… Content and films that are provoking empathy and conversation, and are pushing people to see themselves and to see others in new and unexpected ways.”
This idea behind creating partnerships came to fruition this year with Framing Agnes, a Level Ground-produced short film by filmmaker and writer Chase Joynt, and sociologist Kristen Schilt.
This collaboration has been in the works for a while. In 2013, Curley, along with Level Ground co-founder Chelsea Halligan, met Joynt in Los Angeles at an Outfest Film Festival screening. From there, Level Ground screened Joynt’s film I’m Yours and installed his visual art show Resisterectomy at the first Level Ground film festival in 2014. Last year, Level Ground hosted Joynt and Vivek Shraya as they performed their show “Ask & Answer” at Level Ground’s 2017 festival. The performance included interactive readings of Joynt’s book, You Only Live Twice and Vivek’s book, Even this Page is White.
Over the years, Joynt and Curley realized their aptitude for collaboration, and last summer, Joynt asked Curley to produce the short film project he was working on, Framing Agnes. In October 2017, they shot the film at the Level Ground offices in Pasadena.
“I see Level Ground as being open and able to support lots of different and diverse projects, and that’s something I really love about it,” says Curley. “I’ve noticed over time that it’s so much more about the people we’re collaborating with and those who come into our network.”
The evolving relationship between Framing Agnes and Level Ground is emblematic of how I’ve wanted Level Ground to function since the beginning–as a structure, organization, community, and collective, that people can leverage for whatever it is that they’re doing.
– SAMANTHA CURLEY
Framing Agnes focuses on a woman named Agnes who, in the late 1950s, approached UCLA’s Medical Center seeking sex reassignment surgery. In an interview for the Level Ground podcast, Making It Queer, Joynt poses the question: “What does it mean to be making choices about representation that will impact not only the present but our thinking of history?” This is the idea behind the film.
Agnes’s story was long considered to be exceptional and singular until never-before-seen case files of other patients were found by Joynt and sociologist Kristen Schilt in 2017. The story the film tells is not only presented by current trans culture-makers–including Zackary Drucker (Transparent), Angelica Ross (Pose), Silas Howard (By Hook or By Crook), and Max Wolf Valerio (The Testosterone Files)–it also highlights private individuals who redefined gender in the midcentury.
In his Making It Queer interview, Joynt notes, “[Queer as a theoretical lens is] responsible for, at its most reductive, looking at things otherwise. Taking things that are common or for granted and relied upon as truth and saying, ‘But what if?’ For me, a process of queering is a diligent attempt to ask, “But what if?’ But what if we looked at this again? But what if we looked at it differently? But what if we applied a new lens upon this common scene?”
Joynt comes with plenty of experience crafting creative work about trans identity. Writing about his work, You Only Live Twice, author Maggie Nelson said the book “[gives] the gift so many people only dream of: ample, unhurried space to unspool crucial stories of one’s life, and an attentive, impassioned, invested, intelligent receiver on the other side.” In many ways, much of the cooperation between Level Ground and Joynt does just this: offer up a space to unwind critical history and stories that deserve investment.
Partnering with artists, creators, and filmmakers, Level Ground aims to bring ambitious, world-building, social impact projects to life. They partner with artists to develop and pitch projects that tell complex, nuanced, and/or intersectional stories. Framing Agnes will be on the festival circuit in 2019, and the project has expanded into a tentatively titled feature film production that is underway as part of Level Ground’s new production incubator.
Through this collaboration with Joynt, Curley sees the potential for Level Ground’s future. “The evolving relationship between Framing Agnes and Level Ground is emblematic of how I’ve wanted Level Ground to function since the beginning–as a structure, organization, community, and collective, that people can leverage for whatever it is that they’re doing.”
She continues, “With this project we recognized that we’ve built infrastructure at Level Ground to allow for donations, legal, production, and financial backing… and it felt like we should leverage all that for the sake of this collaboration. Further, the work has fed back in a really powerful way to what Level Ground is and what it’s becoming. That has been really unexpected, interesting, and exciting.”
Joynt agrees with Curley’s assertion that the collaboration has benefited both him and Level Ground in myriad ways. He says, “We approach projects with really different skill sets so it’s been thrilling to work with each other’s styles, and exhilarating to recognize that this is only the beginning.”