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Queendom ★★★★



Director: Agnila Galdanova

Released: 1st December 2023

Death drops to make our jaws hit the floor, fabulous lip-syncs as if their lives depended on it, but drag, as an art form and an invaluable tool for political change, makes us gag and applaud. It’s a shame it doesn’t quite apply to a vicious minority, who seem hellbent on spouting their venom daily as they seek to maliciously strip away the rights of LGBTQ+ people, with harmless activities such as Drag Queen Story Time being targeted.

One of the worst offenders, of course, is Vladimir Putin’s despicable attempts to censor queer Russians, with a recent Supreme Court case seeking to recognise the international LGBTQ movement as an ‘extremist organisation’ causing great concern. Thank goodness for fearless radical performers like Gena Marvin in the depths of such despair. Director Agniia Galdanova’s Queendom paints a captivating portrait of how such artistry can recalibrate the countless torments we’ve faced, enabling a once unlikely sense of hope to emerge amid such aggression.

They describe the country as a prison, as we meet a bald Gena in the small town of Magadan, whose wintry aesthetic mirrors the frosty harassment they are regularly greeted with. They are mired in the snowy terrain, showcasing a seemingly dark and otherworldly style. Still, they are determined to burn brightly, lighting a fire within those around them to shift perceptions of what is considered beautiful in modern society.

While studying in Moscow, their provocative experimental performances are earning top marks, with a burgeoning social media presence prompting Russian Vogue to express their admiration. It doesn’t impress the grandparents, though, as the subtle bigoted jabs, particularly from Gena’s grandad, about education being key. As well how they present themselves, it punctuates Gena’s taut frame when it’s evident that Gena’s drag is rooted in fierce intellect. They give us an elevated form of activism that exudes a remarkable sense of calm and steely tenacity. Even though they make their presence felt on the streets in every instance, the level of peril is exceedingly alarming.

Distorted beats underpin the transfixing theatricality of Gena’s public displays, serving as a reflection of the hideous noise that pierces the eardrums of many a queer person. Whether it’s jet-black tentacle arms furiously smashing into a small puddle, emphatically signalling we are just as pure as any heterosexual. Or the quiet devastation of an unnervingly still Gena, alone in a scrunched-up gold tracksuit swinging on a Flying Dutchman ride, leaving no room for amusement in this park. Gena’s sheer clarity in how they translate this collective plight, factoring in it is captured within the timeframe of Putin waging war on Ukraine, too, continuously leaves you in awe.

With tensions rising, you’d hardly blame director Galdanova for keeping a decent distance in documenting Gena’s exploits. But it doesn’t deter this creative partnership, both bravely thrusting us into this sea of a passionate outcry through tight framing, avoiding the traditional doc route of heavy narration. Instead, it rightfully amplifies the voices of everyday Russians as they become interested through Gena’s statement pieces, which range from a constricting Russian flag number to a startling barbed-wire walkthrough that only solidifies the oppression felt.

As demoralising as it may seem, Queendom still unearths instances of immense queer joy that you cling to—dripping in red as Gena is allowed complete freedom of expression in a birthday party sequence, their accentuated shoulders happy to carry such an intense burden. A post-catwalk exchange implies they can do the impossible and smash through those barriers. To see such building up and validation of queer art, particularly within a country in great turmoil right now, hits you right in the heart.

They were initially stalling Queendom from building a compelling rhythm. This litany of micro-aggressions throughout Gena’s relationship with their grandparents eventually creates the most emotional volume—recognising Gena as their ‘little oddball’. Yet they succumb to the same conservative ideals of wanting them to join the army, misgendering Gena as well as deeming their creative outlet as bankrupt. Simply enjoying a safe space to be unapologetic is seemingly lost on them, prompting further distance. How far can that love and tolerance travel in an environment that wants to stop it dead in its tracks? It is a critical reminder of the power of protest; with a genuinely inspiring figure unfazed in leading the charge regarding vital documentaries this year, Queendom may snatch the crown.

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