SXSW Review: In “Queendom,” Her Russian Majesty Steps Out, Danger Be Damned
Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 11th, 2023
Queendom (Agniia Galdanova, 2023) 3½ out of 4 stars.
A work of tremendous bravery—both cinematic and otherwise—director Agniia Galdanova’s new documentary feature, Queendom, offers an intimate portrait of a transgender Russian artist in her journey of dangerous self-actualization. Just that phrase “transgender Russian artist” should send shivers of apprehension down the prospective viewer’s spine. As bad as things may be getting right now in certain states of this not so cohesive union of ours, it’s far worse over in Vladimir Putin’s autocratic fiefdom. Being openly queer is not only scary, but potentially quite deadly.
That doesn’t stop Gena from being who she is, however, no matter the consequences. We first meet her in Magadan, a town in Russia’s Far East, on the Sea of Okhotsk. That’s where she grew up, raised by her grandparents after the prematurely young demise of her parents (from, we assume from context and casual remarks, alcoholism and/or other addiction). Dressed to the nines in platform heels, she walks out to a frozen shoreline, aided by a friend, for a photo shoot to post on her social-media platforms. She’s a diva in the best sense of the word.
Though those grandparents often refer to Gena by her male birth name, and the grandfather often berates Gena with homophobic slurs, there is still a relationship there, however strained, and genuine, reciprocal concern. After Gena returns to Moscow for her fashion studies, the grandfather’s often antagonist, pleading voicemails punctuate the film at intervals, a reminder of the obstacles Gena faces but also of the pain she endures at every turn. At least they still speak to her, as one friend back home says, which is something, especially given the generation gap. True, and they’re the only family she has left. But it still hurts.
Back in the capital, Gena ups the ante in her street performances and political activism, flaunting new restrictions passed in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine by wearing the colors of the Russian flag over tightly wrapped handmade plastic clothing. Many of her outfits are far more eye-catching, complete with extended shapes (tails, horns, and more), and complemented by dramatic face make-up. It helps her generate a following, but also leads to educational and legal consequences.
Galdanova and her cinematographer, Ruslan Fedotov, do extraordinary work photographing many of Gena’s conceptual pieces, going out on location to capture their creative beauty. They are also front and center when the forces of law and order come calling, giving us a front-row seat to the repression that is already on its way here. We hope the risk is worth it to them; to us, it allows a glimpse at her majesty in all her everlasting glory. May this queen reign a long time.