• Film

Docs: “Queendom” Highlights the Perils of Queer Self-Expression in Russia

A bracing cinematic reminder of the fact that the personal is the political, most especially in autocratic systems, arrives in the form of Queendom, which enjoyed its world premiere at the 2023 South by Southwest Festival on March 11 in the Documentary Feature Competition section.

In focusing on the story of a 22-year-old Russian artist who wants to change people’s perceptions of beauty and queerness, and bring attention to the harassment of the LGBTQ+ community, this nonfiction effort offers up a striking snapshot of the foolhardy courageousness of youth.

Directed by Agniia Galdanova, the movie takes as its subject Gennadiy Chebotarev, a young queer student and artist who identifies as nonbinary but is generally pronoun-ambivalent, rejecting “he/him” and loosely preferring “she/her” only when the name of her performative alter ego, Gena Marvin, cannot be used.

Queendom opens in attention-grabbing fashion, with its subject exiting through a door wearing an elaborate white costume that blends in with the snow-swept surroundings of Magadan, a frigid port town in eastern Russia, located on the Sea of Okhotsk. “We probably look pretty grand, huh?,” says Gena’s friend Yulia, on hand to take photos for social media.

Often decked out in clear high heels or platform moon boots, Gena, head shaved bald, ventures out in public in make-up and otherworldly costumes — meticulously handcrafted out of plastic, colored duct tape, foil and polyurethane — that variously evoke Nosferatu or the Slender Man.


Needless to say, this is not widely accepted in provincial Magadan. After the duo are kicked out of a grocery store, Yulia holds forth on the gulag mentality that still grips their hometown. “We have fear and subservience in our DNA,” she says. “Genetic memory is a powerful thing.” Later, we see Gena after being assaulted by an angry neighbor.

An orphan, Gennadiy goes to school and does “paid-in-exposure” photo shoots and other events in Moscow, which her grandparents struggle to understand. Grandma calls her “my little oddball,” even if she doesn’t like Gena’s shaved head. Grandpa, meanwhile, urges his grandchild to devote herself to education. “Those social media likes are useless shit,” he says.

After Gena suffers the consequences of taking part in an anti-government protest advocating for the freedom of Alexei Navalny, tensions with Grandpa become more pronounced. Still, Gena presses on with outdoor appearances, including a provocative visit to a park during a Paratrooper’s Day event, as well as an audition and fashion show which seem to serve as a professional breakthrough of sorts. Interspersed throughout the film are a couple performance segments, which seem a manifestation of Gena’s subconscious. Of the performances, a sequence which mimics a birthing seems particularly cathartic.

Drag, with its exaggerated form, of course has a long and well-chronicled history of functioning as subversive political statement. Queendom, though, has little interest in delving into or further detailing this connection, which somewhat fences in its narrative. Neither does it press Gena for a lot of self-analysis, despite one segment in which she deems the “entire country a prison,” but talks about knowing how to navigate its rules.

In glancing fashion, Gena recalls the colorful subject of last year’s Uýra: The Rising Forest, a nonbinary Brazilian art educator and biologist whose performative alter ego was rooted in similar sociopolitical anxieties, and stifled feelings of living in a world often overtly hostile to one’s mere existence. Uýra, however, sought to educate much more tangibly and directly, meeting with children’s groups in addition to their public performances. A larger percentage of Gena’s performances feels more like an age-appropriate exploration of self-expression and still-fluid identity.

These facts don’t necessarily make Queendom any less interesting, though. Galdanova crafts an engaging movie, told in a fashion which credits its viewers with having an implicit understanding of the willfulness of youth. Musical contributions by Damien Vandesande and Toke Bronson Odin help evoke an unease one imagines runs parallel to the surging inner uncertainty of its subject.

One doesn’t have to have been an inveterate rule-breaker as a teenager or young adult to admire Gena’s mettle. But of course, those choices come at a price. As the threat of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — unfolding quietly in the background for much of the movie — becomes a reality, the bureaucratic demerits on Gena’s record open her up to the threat of forced conscription. Without giving away its ending, the film concludes with an eight-minute phone call between Gena and her grandparents which seems to offer up some hope but also a small buffet of different heartbreaking options.

In addressing a very personal and singular story, Queendom unlocks a political tale, yes — but one that is also, sadly, a stand-in for the stories of many, many young people in present-day Russia, unable to be their authentic selves.