Monday 11 December 2023

Resistance: "Queendom"

Documentary cinema's latest profile of a creative in the wild, Agniia Galdanova's
Queendom, introduces us to the Russian performance artist and social-media personality Gena Marvin, creation of a non-binary fashion student referred to as Gennadiy Chebotarev on official college reports. At least 6'3" in heels, head shaved, face painted as white as the snow on the site of the former gulag where her creator grew up, Marvin recalls a figure from Russian folklore or some of Matthew Barney's video art, adorning her body with increasingly elaborate costumes and prosthetics. Striking when caught posing for a photoshoot against a backdrop of the frozen wastes, she's even more so standing at the meat counter of her local supermarket, being eyed up by fellow shoppers and suspicious policeman - so much so, in fact, that she will be ejected from the store shortly thereafter, seemingly just on the grounds of looking different. Nobody quite knows what to make of Gena Marvin, and most often her queerness has been perceived as a threat to the status quo - which makes her a double threat in a society as rigidly conservative as Putin's Russia. Here, then, is an artist following the explosive Pussy Riot's lead - except that, as a twentysomething gay creative from a less than comfortable background, Marvin doesn't yet have the celebrity and contacts to help out whenever she finds herself in strife, nor the cash to make a dash for another country should things get rough. Instead, she comes to be turfed out of college for performing a piece deemed to be anti-patriotic (now there's your actual cancel culture), and hassled and harassed wherever she turns on the streets. Very soon into Galdanova's film, you come to worry that Gena Marvin has only taken to Instagram livestreaming as a means of offering sporadic proofs of life.

Yet while the grandparents who raised her (and insist on calling her Gennadiy) decry Gena's pursuit of social-media fame as trivial timewasting, it's clear from the film that we're witnessing a sophisticated artistic project. In full tentacular drag, Marvin has a way of drawing out contemporary Russian reality, and the attitudes that go to shape much of that reality. At the comparatively benign end of the scale, it's her grandfather - a gruff provincial hunter, who generally regards his charge as a bit of a loafer - insisting Marvin get a real job, or at least join the Army and toughen up. Less happily, Galdanova catches her defrocked subject engaged in fractious conversation with a woman at a window who has Very Strong Opinions on what being a man means. (A somewhat disconcerting cut suggests this rubbernecker eventually came down to give Marvin a fat lip.) Queendom operates by juxtaposition, much of it of Gena Marvin's making - her way of reintegrating herself in a society that, constitutionally, wants nothing to do with her kind: watch her totter through a sedate park in outrageous stilettos, resembling a supermodel claimed by Cthulhu. (Choice detail: the cigarette poised between Marvin's fingers.) Yet some of that juxtaposition is very much the film's own. Watching Marvin clump past bemused middle-aged men in more traditionally Russian dress might be funny, if there were less at stake; as it is, a longshot of the artist leaving the park for the afternoon, set up as a visual punchline, instead assumes new complexities once a passing yob enters the frame, yelling at her to run for her life. There's little doubt that the character and persona of Gena Marvin is an exceptionally effective tool for revealing prejudice - but again, we just wonder how viable this can be as a longterm career strategy, or indeed as a lifeplan.

For the time being, we can at least console ourselves with the knowledge Marvin's life and work to date has inspired a documentary that amply functions as cinema, the result of director and subject alike thinking in big, bold, generally expressive and defiant images. Galdanova has matched her subject for editorial sophistication: this isn't one of those docs that feels obliged to explain everything it comes across, or to walk us through any issues raised hand-in-hand. Like Gena Marvin's outfits, Queendom's pictures tell their own stories: massed ranks of police gathering on the streets, batons raised; a desolate tableau of Marvin disposing of fish guts in a nearby lake after her expulsion from college (and a notionally less illiberal city); a YouTube clip of Putin announcing a build-up of troops on the Ukraine border; youthful Muscovites decrying the outbreak of war, a sequence that ties Marvin's personal struggles to other, wider struggles against ongoing Russian tyranny. In its second half, Queendom starts circling a little: even in exile, Marvin finds herself fighting some of the same battles over and over - though this might not necessarily be unreflective of her experience. (Our exasperation is but a fraction of hers.) It snaps back into focus, however, whenever Galdanova returns to Marvin's spiky, slithering, insectoid art, an eruption of natural urges being ruthlessly repressed elsewhere, and one that could only be considered disturbing or a threat to public order if you chose not to wear your big boy pants and let it be. All things considered, it comes over as far less disturbing than the real world with which Galdanova so pointedly and skilfully frames it.

Queendom is now showing in selected cinemas, and is available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema, Prime Video and Dogwoof on Demand.

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