Credit: Greenwich Entertainment
Before We Vanish by Greg Nussen Featured Film

Queendom — Agniia Galdanova

June 11, 2024

Late in Queendom, the queer Russian performance artist Gena Marvin (alternately styled as Jenna Marvin) struts during a go-see where a fashion designer calls her a “real-life monster.” The seeming pejorative is quickly followed by qualifier. “You’re perfect,” he says breathlessly. Those uninitiated to Marvin’s brazen costumed theatrics may be surprised at their distinct gaudiness (out of convenience, the artist uses non-binary pronouns, but does not identify with any classification: “I’m an entity”). Physically imposing and boasting the physique of an H.R. Giger alien, Marvin marches the streets of European cities in “performances” where she is adorned in hand-made costumes and Noh-like makeup design that transforms the already captivating provocateur into a Satanic presence. Queendom, Agniia Galdanova’s tender portrait of Marvin as she struggles to emancipate herself from family and country during the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (specifically, the spring of 2022) is at once a call to action for political activism and a universalizing document of a once-in-a-lifetime artist of distinct ability.

From the start of the documentary, Galdanova presents Marvin (born as Gennadiy Chebotarev) as a disruptive force. Beginning in the provincial port town of Magadan, a former gulag and current frozen tundra of blue-collar work and regressive social mores, Marvin literally bursts into frame in gargantuan heels, clown make-up, and lace-like lingerie. Thus begins a leitmotif of Marvin dismantling a slew of preconceived binaries. In Russia, a country which has effectively made queer life illegal, Marvin’s presence alone is seen as a threat.

Though Marvin’s artistic persona is fearless and unapologetic, Queendom is a documentary about the artist’s struggles both private and public, tracing a journey from Magadan to Moscow, back to Magadan and eventually to Paris, where Marvin currently enjoys political amnesty from the Russian Federation. As is frequently the case with larger-than-life figures, it can be easy to forget Marvin is not an alien but very much a young adult (22 at the time of filming), battling financial insecurity and familial rejection. In a scene that is both hilarious and heartbreaking, Gena’s grandparents admonish her for not making money on her art even though she was just featured in Russian Vogue, a scene that drives home the universality of familial ignorance to boundary-defying art.

More dangerous than her grandparents’ rejection is a constant stream of physical attacks. Galdanova is careful to show that Marvin’s bravery stems, in part, from an insistence on being seen despite being chased by government officials or else beaten by epithet-spewing bystanders. Almost as a contrast to her  costume designs, which would be perfectly at home in Guillermo del Toro’s most nightmarish creations, Marvin’s “performances” are almost comically uncomplicated: she is attacked merely for existing in repressive societies. Her work is a direct confrontation of embedded assumptions of masculinity and femininity, asking those who see her on the street to question why certain expressions are seen as normal while others are criminalized.

But Marvin is not just protesting her country’s dangerous attack of people on the fringes; arrested multiple times for speaking against the criminality of Vladimir Putin, Marvin is a walking example of how the greatest art is also the most dangerous, straddling lines between art, gender, sexuality and rigorous anti-war activism. As a queer person in one of the West’s most restrictive countries, Gena is already gawked at — and her additional makeup and design is something of an exaggerated expression of the same, provoking responses that seemingly ask for brutality. In contrast to what Marvin daily experiences, Goldanova smartly lets her extraordinary subject simply be, in the process turning her documentary into an essential document and its audience into witnesses. Like Marvin’s grandparents, the world may never fully understand her significance; yet, like all acts of queerness, Queendom disrupts the notion we have to understand it at all. It’s exactly the way Gena Marvin would want.

DIRECTOR: Agniia Galdanova;  CAST: Gena Marvin;  DISTRIBUTOR: Greenwich Entertainment;  IN THEATER/STREAMING: June 14;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 38 min.