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Built atop a former Soviet gulag in Russia’s far east, the permafrosted port town of Magadan wasn’t really built to accommodate personalities like Gena Marvin: a pointedly un-Russian adopted moniker for a queer transgender performance artist who fashions her own body as an act of protest. Agniia Galdanova’s immensely sympathetic documentary portrait Queendom introduces Marvin – swaddled in white furs, lace and face-paint extending across her shaven scalp – against the snowily bleached landscape of a hometown that has never felt like home. Equal parts extra-terrestrial priestess and Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago (1965), she sticks out like a parrot in a pigeon coop even when colour-matched to her surroundings. That’s the point.
“What kind of man dresses like that?” shouts an older woman from her flat window, as Marvin passes by in one of her typically head-turning homemade get-ups – constructed from recycled materials, held together with duct tape. Only 21 at the time of filming and preternaturally thick-skinned, Marvin is used to such responses, and more violent ones besides, in the hostile anti-LGBTQ+ environment of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. More often than not, she responds calmly, specifying and asserting her identity with a matter-of-factness that stands in sharp contrast to the community hysteria that, in one memorable scene, sees her turfed out of a local supermarket for indecency.
Galdanova and cinematographer Ruslan Fedotov stick closely by their subject at her most intrepid, as when she takes to the streets of Moscow, bound in barbed wire in protest against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The capital is scarcely more hospitable than Magadan; arrest beckons, followed eventually by sanctuary in Paris. While intimately observing Marvin throughout, Queendom also conjures some sense of her own perspective on these social frontlines, forged by a lifetime of isolation and difference.
Though Marvin sees herself as something of a political symbol, Galdanova takes care not to do the same, consistently foregrounding the idiosyncratic character and wit beneath the startling exterior. Much of the most compelling material here documents Marvin’s family life – whether at home or via heated phone calls – with the grandparents who raised her, both loving and uncomprehending to the point that they think joining the army might straighten her out. There’s great poignancy in Marvin’s deft, even tender negotiation of their daily microaggressions and outright homophobic jabs, a domestic practice run for what she’ll face in the wider world. Avoiding empty ‘yas queen’ cheerleading and sloganeering, Queendom makes little attempt to editorialise or advocate on its subject’s behalf, soberly trusting in the power of her presence.
► Queendom is arrives in UK cinemas from 1 December.