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CPH:DOX 2023

Review: Queendom


- Agniia Galdanova's CPH:DOX prizewinner is an urgent, rich portrait of a Russian queer artist fighting prejudice and heavy-handed patriarchy

Review: Queendom

Russia's all-out war on Ukraine has brought about an increased interest in documentaries on Russian society: it is only natural that we are trying to make sense of the horrors that are going on. The film that won the Next:Wave Award at CPH:DOX (see the news), Queendom by Agniia Galdanova, does this in a transcendental way, through the story of a queer artist who fights prejudice and heavy-handed patriarchy. But although it inevitably comments on Russia, it is in essence an urgent and rich portrait.

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It is a fully observational documentary, but when Gennadiy is interviewed by Vogue Russia, we learn that he considers his creation Gena (pronounced “Jenna”) “an entity”, something separate from himself, and admits he does not care much about gender or sexual identification, since he doesn't recognise himself in any of those types. Here, he decides to use the male pronoun, but by the end of the film, this will turn around. This might indicate a fusing of the artist and her art, or it could be a sign of a realisation, a growing up. After all, when the film starts, Gena is only 20.

Born in Magadan in the far east of the country, which is basically an outpost of the most remote gulag in the former Soviet Union, Gena lost her parents when she was young and was raised by her grandparents. Grandpa is a typical old-school Soviet infused with some Orthodox Christianity, and appears to be able to just about tolerate Gena, but their relationship is spaced out throughout the film and is far from simple. Of course, these two old people will never be able to understand her, and as her friend says, it's a miracle they don't throw her out.

It's no wonder: Gena's art is unapologetically queer and uncompromisingly performative. But she doesn't perform in theatres or galleries; she dresses in alienesque, nightmarish costumes made out of duct tape, papier-mâché and latex, with obligatory 15cm stilettos, pitch-black contact lenses and a shaved head, and walks around in public, in broad daylight (or visits a gym – a TikTok of her running in a balloon-like costume and those heels on a treadmill is simply hilarious, proving that Gena clearly has a sense of humour). In Magadan, this just gets her escorted out of a supermarket, but in Moscow, it is straight-up dangerous. Society there has long been more aggressive and less tolerant, and the worse it is, the more Gena fights it. After her friends are beaten up on the street for making a video in drag, she walks through the city centre full of soldiers and sailors on Paratroopers’ Day.

The strength of Gena's art stems not only from her courage, but also from her openness to being vulnerable, both emotionally and physically. After attending the protest against Navalny's arrest, wrapped in duct tape in the colours of the Russian flag, she is thrown out of the make-up school. Education was her grandpa's last hope for this depraved kid, and now he wants him (to Grandpa, she’s always “him”) to go into the army. And Putin's “special military operation” has almost begun.

Gena's art seems straightforward, but it is incredibly powerful and deserves a study of its own. Galdanova uses it to transport us into the protagonist's state of mind, and these segments were clearly made directly for the documentary – they would certainly have had a different effect without the invested but disciplined, clean camerawork by Ruslan Fedotov (as a director, winner of three prizes at IDFA), and the otherworldly score by Damien Vandesande and Toke Bronson Odin.

This music, which conjures up images of insects or aliens, will penetrate reality – the artist outside of the performance – in the penultimate scene, which ends the film on a sad but definitely hopeful note for Gena. Then it segues into a devastating coda, a haunting, terrifying image that says more about the current state of Russian society than a thousand op-eds or podcasts ever could.

Queendom is a production by Igor Myakotin and Agniia Galdanova, and Submarine has the international rights.

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