SXSW 2023 Review: “Queendom” Artfully Takes on a Kingdom in Russia

You instantly want to know more about Gena Marvin upon her introduction in “Queendom,” though you’re also immediately aware that she’s in a place where most people want to know less. Strutting out to take photos on the outskirts of Magadan, a Russian port town where the temperatures regularly reach 50 degrees below freezing, wearing tall black heels and long black gloves in contrast to a white suit that fades into the backdrop of the arctic tundra behind her, the glamour of the photos that will eventually make their way onto Instagram is in stark contrast to the scene that follows where security guards brusquely ask her to leave their grocery store for the sake of the children and elderly that shop there, with the unusual outfit considered to be lingerie. The moment may be fleeting for both sides when Gena can only stand her ground for so long, but she is unlikely to be deterred from doing the exact same thing all over again when making space for herself and other members of the LGBTQA community will need to call attention to themselves so they can’t disappear without a trace in the untenable climate that currently exists there.

As much of a threat that’s posed to Gena under the rule of Putin, who has hardly discouraged discriminatory practices and attitudes towards the gay community during his two decades-plus in government while only recently explicitly turning it into law with “anti-gay propaganda” legislation, “Queendom” suggests that attacks on Gena are evidence of the greater threat she poses as a performance artist who can upend the damaging narrative that’s out there by simply walking around in the streets. A student in Moscow by day who gets bored with studying when it seems as if action must be taken outside, Gena’s splashy outfits may draw stares, but invite director Agniia Galdanova to take a deeper look at the toll of such activism when the conflict faced by all of Russia is reflected directly at home where Gena’s grandparents clearly care for her, though cannot understand anything that veers from the traditions they’ve grown up with themselves, whether in terms of getting an education or changing ideas of sexual orientation.

“Queendom” takes after its subject with cinematographer Ruslan Fedotov’s arresting imagery where even mundane scenes following Gena around Magadan feel intense, evoking the pressure of being watched around the clock and making Gena’s decision to have that observation happen on her own terms all the more powerful. For better or worse, Galdanova sticks around for the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, directly impacting Gena when still recognized by federal authorities by her gender at birth and could be subject to a national draft. However, Galdanova finds an equally compelling and less obvious implication when Putin leads the country into an unneccesary war by convincing the public of its righteousness and the notion that it’s a fait accompli, running the same playbook for a campaign projecting reality that the powers that be in Russia hope to frame all other communities they find nonconforming and seek to erase. in that light, Gena’s own work reflects the might of artists everywhere as disrupters and while it might’ve been enough to simply amplify what she’s been up to in her practice, “Queendom” holds that same power to provoke and inspire as a work of art unto itself.

“Queendom” will next screen at CPH:DOX on March 20th at the Empire Bio Theater at 5 pm, March 23rd at 4:45 pm at the Cinemateket Theater and March 25th at the Grand Teatret Theater at 9:15 pm.

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