(USA/France, 98 min.)
Dir. Agniia Galdanova
Category is: drag activist realness! Gena Marvin is a radical drag performance artist whose voice, style, and lewks make a defiant assertion of queer life. Queendom profiles Gena as she takes the brave and bold decision to be visibly queer in Russia, a country with one of the most oppressive anti-LGBTQ+ societies in the world. Director Agniia Galdanova tracks Gena over four years as she endeavours to share her art, but also her right to simply exist. Queendom is an essential snapshot of the fight for queer rights happening right now.
Gena really knows how to turn a head and put her platform to good use. Her looks aren’t typical drag. They’re freaky avant-garde creations that might leave some queens uttering jabs of “Party City” under their breath. Meanwhile, their costumey flair might leaving others’ jaws agape with their boldness. Her work also caters itself nicely to the screen. Futuristic costumes with dramatic lines and otherworldly make-up invite so many places for an eye to look. Gena’s statuesque height, moreover, really asserts her space in public places. She models with confidence and allows the implications of her art to envelope an onlooker. One’s tasked with seeing the person not beneath the costume, but inextricably linked to it.
Navigating Public Life
Queendom captures the plight of a generation of LGBTQ+ people as Galdanova observes Gena at home and out in public. The 21-year-old Gena, born and raised in the remote small town of Magadan, lives with her grandparents having lost both parents as a child. Gena shares how her grandparents struggle to accept the drag artist who differs from the young boy they adopted.
Between shaving her head and eyebrows and pursuing her art in lieu of conventional work, the grandparents don’t quite understand Gena’s drive. They insist on using her birth name and encourage her to get a practical job at a factory or in the military. But her grandmother makes the best of it and responds with love. Gena’s grandfather, however, reacts according to his proximity to the camera, expressing shame and disappointment in outbursts he can’t contain. While the grandfather’s rejection disappoints Gena, it doesn’t deflate her. Rather, it fuels her drive to stand taller.
The film, while somewhat meandering in its episodic structure, illustrates the risks that Gena takes daily while sharing her art. Simply taking the subway to her site of protest, onlookers gawk. They stare at the strange figure painted white and wrapped in barbed wire. Security guards escort her from grocery stores. Shopping becomes a political act. People heckled her from apartment windows. Meanwhile, at sites of protest, police and security guards advise her to leave for her own safety. This includes one sequence in which Gena visits a park where the Russian Paratroopers assemble. Their rally, which carries tones of anti-LGBTQ+ violence, puts a chill in the air that underscores Gena’s silent protest. When the cops force her away, onlookers murmur about taking “that thing” out of sight.
Art in the Streets
Despite the hostility, which includes expulsion from art school when her drag goes viral, Gena marches on. Her art becomes increasingly political as the climate worsens. She wraps herself in coloured tape to evoke the Russian flag and joins the masses to protest the arrest of Alexei Navalny. Her visible queerness makes her an immediate target for the police.
Queendom creates a safe space for Gena to demonstrate her art as Galdanova lets her performances shine. Observational interludes let Gena pose, writhe, and crawl in picturesque isolated locations. The film has a fine eye for portraiture and composition, taking in the strange and surreal forms that defy categorization.
As the situation worsens, Gena acknowledges that her time in Russia is limited. This inspires her boldest performance, one that closes the film and unfortunately comes after a pre-credits cut to black that somewhat mutes its impact. Gena, wearing nothing but a thong, heels, and a bucket’s worth of blood, strolls spookily through the streets. One can practically hear the cries for Ukraine as she uses her situation to highlight the plight of another.