A New Documentary Spotlights the Trans Performance Artist Standing Up to the Russian Government

A new documentary follows Gena Marvin as she contends with her country's transphobia.

Film still of Queendom (2023). Image courtesy of Dogwoof Documentaries.

Homophobia and transphobia in Russia have only intensified in recent years, becoming increasingly legitimized by the powers that be. Just last week, Russia’s Supreme court declared the “international LGBTQ+ movement” to be an extremist organization. So-called LGBTQ+ “propaganda” had already been banned last year, including any references to LGBTQ+ people in books and films or on T.V.

Against this alarming backdrop, Queendom is a new documentary about Gena Marvin, a trans performance artist from Russia who dons surreal creature drag—think Lady Gaga crossed with Nosferatu—in public places as a form of protest. “I take all the pain and use it in my art,” she said, admitting that many of her looks verge on monstrous. “The horrors I saw and experienced were much scarier than the costumes.” Marvin identifies as non-binary and uses she/her pronouns.

Much of the film is set in Marvin’s hometown of Magadan, a remote seaport in Russia’s Far East where the Soviet government constructed forced labor camps in the 1930s. This grim history feels apparent in every grey, wintry skyline and each passerby’s hardened facial expression. The monotony is broken up by Marvin’s tall, slim figure strutting past in heels, dramatic face paint, and otherworldly costume.

“For so long, people in Magadan didn’t have have freedom at all,” according to the documentary’s director Agniia Galdanova, “I was very curious to meet somebody who finally broke this cycle and became very free.” She shot the film over two years, at one point even moving in with Marvin.

The film quickly establishes the great risks to Marvin’s personal safety that these radical forms of self-expression entail. Even a trip to the supermarket is beset by invasive stares and, eventually, the intervention of security guards who escort Marvin off the premises. On another occasion, she is barred from entering a public park because it is occupied by an unofficial parade of paratroopers. “You’re overtly provocative appearance can lead to incidents,” explained a guard.

Not infrequently, members of the public hurl threats and homophobic slurs. “You just prance around in tights,” shouted one woman from an open window. “I’m not harming you,” Marvin shouted back. “I don’t affect you at all.”

Film still of Queendom (2023) on performance artist Gena Marvin. Image courtesy of Dogwoof Documentaries.

Film still of Queendom (2023). Image courtesy of Dogwoof Documentaries.

It is not so easy to defend herself against her grandparents, who took Marvin in after the death of her parents. They are undoubtedly loving, but much of the film focuses on their struggle to support their grandchild’s determination to perform before a growing audience on Instagram and TikTok rather than finding a conventional job. The pressure intensifies after Marvin is expelled from university in St Petersburg as punishment for taking part in a protest in support of the activist Alexei Navalny. Her grandparents’ well-meant suggestions that she find a wife and start a family or join the army reveal a vast chasm of misunderstanding.

Pieces of performance art by Marvin appear episodically throughout Queendom, most often to articulate moments of heightened frustration or anguish. They function as standalone artworks in their own right. “Gena would always come up with the idea and then we’d collaborate, seeking ways to bring it to life,” said Galdanova. “The performances are like her subconscious in a way.”

Shortly after finding out that she must return from St Petersburg to Magadan, we see Marvin’s vulnerable naked body swallowed up by a crowd of identical faceless figures covered in the red, white, and blue of the Russian flag. Facing pressure from her grandmother to “be a normal guy” and put to work gutting fish, Marvin uses latex and tape to metamorphose into a black-horned demon and stalks a barren landscape reminiscent of Mars, stopping only to scream at the sky. In a later clip she crawls and writhes through mud, burying her face in the ground and submerging herself beneath its thick sludge.

For another memorable performance, Marvin wraps herself in sparking gold foil and rides a swing carousel at the town’s Luna Park, which otherwise appears to be an entirely abandoned. Against the faded, ramshackle fairground, which audibly creaks in harmony with the gulls overhead, Marvin’s slumped figure looks strangely shiny and new. It won’t be long before she manages to escape Magadan once again, moving to Moscow to walk in fashion shows.

By late 2021, there are reports on the radio of an impending war, which breaks out in February 2022, just days after Marvin celebrates her 23rd birthday with queer friends at a club in the city. Dressed in barbed wire, she attempts to join an anti-war protest but is quickly arrested amid scenes of disturbing police brutality. “I cannot and will not participate in this monstrous war,” she decided. Her desperation to receive her travel documents and flee is expressed through a performance in which Marvin breaks out of the confines of a tight plastic wrap, alternating between growling like a beast and struggling not to suffocate.

By April 2022, Marvin has made it to Paris as a refugee. She rejoices in her ability to walk freely through the streets in a skirt and heels without fear of harassment. Speaking to her grandparents on the phone, she struggled to express the intensity of her relief. At the start of the film, Marvin’s grandmother fondly calls her “a little oddball.” Over a year later, emboldened by her newfound emancipation, Marvin is ready to talk back. “I’m not an anomaly,” she declared. “I am not an odd weirdo.” Asked why she needs to wear skirts and heels, she replied: “These things complete me. They’re basic needs.”

Queendom is in select cinemas and on demand now. For more information, please head to: queendom.film.

 

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