Agnila Galdanova’s documentary, “Queendom,” has a tremendous, fiery subject at its center. The 21-year-old Gena Marvin is a stark aberrant in her native country of Russia that slams and illegalizes LGBTQIIA+ as propaganda. Being from a climate of intense, unforgiving prejudice and intolerance, Marvin doesn’t allow herself or her spirit to be cut down. She draws on the exhilarating, exuberant power of spectacle in glorious drag to build her personhood. As she tells someone, when she goes out in character, she feels utterly fearless, like a ‘knight in armor”. Issues of safety don’t register their alarm to her, drowned by the immense strength Marvin finds in her outrageously head-turning costumes.
Marvin hails from the remote town of Magadan, where she was raised by her grandparents. Both are besotted with her but are firmly opposed to Marvin’s desire for femininity, still addressing her by the male birth name of Gennadiy. Only a handful of acquaintances and friends have embraced Marvin and her trans identity. Most of the townsfolk are unsettled when she publicly dons provocative costumes fashioned from duct tape and junk. She is frequently asked to leave the premises, be it a department store or debarred entry to a public park. She is ordered to exit a store on the grounds that her lingerie is showing, which she is informed isn’t a desirable sight with kids around.
Marvin doesn’t vehemently protest instead calmly holds her ground, refusing to budge. Marvin radiates an extraordinary audacity, one that rigorously and unbendingly asserts its right to existence and expression in the most aggressively antagonistic ecosystem that surrounds her, wherever she goes, be it in her small town or Moscow, to which she moves to study fashion. Everywhere she goes, she is reminded of the incendiary charge vested in her costumes, which can inflame incidents not favorable for her safety.
She isn’t so invested in college, too, especially because she has to stick to a masculine code and presentation within every space she traverses. Her grandfather keeps railing at her to focus on her education. He questions why she does performances and modeling photoshoots for her despite her assurance that they may help her gain wider visibility and work later on. The very notion of unpaid gigs she does besides her studies does not appeal to her grandparents, both having been buttressed by capitalist logic. There is an unfailing reiteration bolstered by them upon him of giving more importance to his education so as to earn as he can no longer live off their pensions which are soon nearing their fag end.
She cannot be truly and fully herself, a persona that is actively denied to make itself felt and strongly heard. This self, struggling to break out, gets an articulation in the drag, which, in its exaggeratedness, is politically loaded. Marvin is aware of the discomfort she exerts among those she crosses paths with, who look at her with horror; Marvin insists what she has experienced has been scarier than any of her costumes. The brutality and antipathy climb up by several steep notches after she opts for costumes with the colors of the national flag when Putin advances its offensive on Ukraine. Marvin has resisted military conscription, and she fuels her defiance further.
Galdanova skilfully weaves the personal and political to gut-wrenching results by pitting flashes of daring queer resistance at the forefront to combat a language of hate and violence. Marvin admits to feeling twinges of fear and apprehension before joining a pro-peace demonstration. When she shows up, however, she is as indomitable and formidable as ever.
The film is as attuned to the eye-catching brilliance of her projection as it is to her fragile emotional state, which is rendered through fantastical abstractions seemingly transposed to some other realm. Marvin drifts through the world, looking for anchorage but rarely coming across any except the most fleeting sprinkling of joy and validation. It is a bleak life she leads, one that is averse to her choice, yet she concedes no room to any pretense or artifice that could have made her situation easier. Crucially, the film pivots her decisions as vital and all-encompassing, recognizing the enormous emotional toll, constant adversity, and the dehumanization everyone around her feels entitled to hurl at her.