With her whitened face glowing above a snowy fur coat, her bleached eyelashes delicate as snowflakes, Gena Marvin seems like an inextricable part of the frosty Siberian landscape she grew up in. But as director Agniia Galdanova’s sympathetic, moving documentary shows, this 21-year-old drag artist couldn't have been born into a more inhospitable climate.
Marvin’s grandparents can’t see her as anything other than a hapless, self-destructive lad – one who's dangerously obsessed with a Western artform that's at odds with the severe conformity of their Russian hometown of Magadan, literally and culturally built on an old Soviet gulag. Again and again, Marvin pushes at the limits of this bleak society. She’s kicked out of her local supermarket. So, spurred on by bigoted attacks against other Russian queer people, she decides to venture right into the middle of a paratroopers’ rally in full drag, attracting the stares of buff men in berets in scenes that are homoerotic and menacing all at once.
It’s hard to understand the emotions coursing through Marvin’s body, as it’s wrapped in gaffer tape or barbed wire in a series of improvised exercises in fashion-as-armour. She admits to fear, but never to doubt as she embarks on her single-minded mission to subvert Russia's remorselessly anti-LGBTQ+ agenda. She’d rather show her trauma through performance, not words: so Galdanova and cinematographer Ruslan Fedotov collaborate with her on obliquely beautiful scenes where she writhes painfully over Magadan's rock-strewn plains in insect-like regalia, vulnerable as a half-crushed ant.
This drag artist couldn’t have been born into a more inhospitable climate
Sometimes, a more direct kind of insight would be welcome. But Marvin’s interactions with her grandparents supply a welcome note of ordinariness as they try to understand her world. Her grandad wonders: if Russia is now a capitalist country, why does she give away her performances for free? Her grandmother tries, and fails, and tries again to understand that Marvin’s clothes are more than a costume – they’re a whole identity, worth risking everything for.
Queendom shows the bigotry of a Russia that favours violent, rigid ideals of masculinity as war in Ukraine brews. But it’s also a poignant insight into this vast country’s squandered potential to be a more open-minded, outward-looking place – glimpsed in the edgy Moscow fashion scene that embraces Marvin, and in the online following that pores over and supports her every move. It’s this sense of loss that lingers, alongside this film’s striking, extraordinary images of a vulnerable body being tested to destruction.
In UK cinemas Dec 1.