Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 16th, 2023
Director Agniia Galdanova’s new documentary, Queendom, just premiered at SXSW 2023 (where I reviewed it). It follows transgender Russian performance artist and activist Gena (known as Gena Marvin on social media) from Magadan in Russia’s Far East, where she grew up, to Moscow and beyond as she struggles against her country’s prejudices and growing crackdown on dissent. I sat down with Galdanova and her producer, Igor Myakotin, at the festival. Their English is excellent, so beyond edits for length and clarity, this conversation is more or less as it unfolded.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed: How did you meet Gena?
Agniia Galdanova: We met in 2019 while I was doing research for a docuseries out of which Queendomevolved, and Gena was one of the protagonists. Back then she was living in St. Petersburg, and I’m also from St. Petersburg, and it happened that she was living almost on the same street as my mom, so we started to hang out a lot. We met, and very quickly, after a few months, I understood that I didn’t want to do any docuseries. I wanted to do a feature about Gena.
CLR: Before making this movie, had you ever been to Magadan before?
CLR: It’s quite beautiful; the scenery, maybe not the town, itself, but the surrounding scenery and Sea of Okhotsk. It’s impressive.
AG: Yes, it’s very impressive. Especially in winter. (laughs)
CLR: You might not want to live in Siberia, but it’s gorgeous to look at in a film.
AG: That’s 100%. I never had the idea to go to Magadan before. But that’s how I found Igor. I started to search for a producer and couldn’t find one. My EP David France made this connection through another friend. And when we started to talk with Igor and I started to pitch him the project, he was like, “I can’t believe it.” Because he’s from the same town. He’s from Magadan.
CLR: (to Igor) Wow! You’re actually from Magadan?
Igor Myakotin: I was born and raised there.
AG: For me, it was like destiny because until then I didn’t know anybody else from Magadan except Gena, and then Igor.
CLR: So, Igor, since we were talking about the town just now, what would you say is a good reason to visit Magadan?
IM: They’re wonderful people there. People like Gena, who is also from Magadan. I think it’s a magical, special place. It feels like the end of the world.
CLR: It does. Those places are usually special in their way.
IM: But it’s also got this dark history of the Gulag camps.
CLR: (back to Agniia) Do you think that the presence of your camera, following Gena around, perhaps helped prevent more harassment, or do you think, at times, it might have also fed that?
AG: I have a very long and complicated relationship with this topic of me and the camera being there and how it affects what’s happening with reality itself. If it did, great. There was no intention to prevent or to provoke any of that. We were just trying to understand, because we had a lot of questions, a lot of talks around that. And Gena, for example, was asking us to not follow very closely. It doesn’t look like a film shoot because she wanted to have her space, so we were trying to find a way to follow her to serve our needs and to not interfere with her performances. But it’s a very interesting thing because, in any case, when you enter the space with the camera, you change everything there.
CLR: Of course.
AG: It’s no longer reality as it is, but reality with the camera in the room.
CLR: That is the challenge for all documentarians. Speaking of cameras, did you and your Director of Photography, Ruslan Fedotov, change cameras depending on the situation? Who’s filming in the airplane, for example? Did you have to just choose to maybe film on an iPhone in this scene so it’s less distracting?
AG: We chose a camera specifically for the project and we tried to film everything on this camera. But sometimes it was not Ruslan who was filming because there was some emergency situation, and he himself is a director, was doing his things, so I had to go with another guy who didn’t have this camera, or there were a couple of shots that I made on an iPhone in the film. But it was not intentional. It was just, we were jumping in and working with what we had.
CLR: Understood. What camera did you and Ruslan mostly work with, then?
AG: The Canon C70.
CLR: I feel like the footage cuts together pretty seamlessly, and Ruslan’s work is pretty amazing. And so are Gena’s costumes. Some of her performance pieces were done in locations that in and of themselves were very striking. Was she already going to those locations with or without you, or were some of those scenes things that you decided to do for the movie and you then found the ideal spot for them? I’m thinking of when she’s writhing on the dunes, which are really beautiful.
AG: Those dunes were totally Gena’s idea, and we were just following. And it happened to be this amazing place that she Googled and found and was really insisting that we all have to go there because it’s in the suburbs of St. Petersburg. And it was raining, and I was driving, and we were stuck in a big puddle of water. It was pretty much a crazy trip. But then the sunset was coming, so we were losing light, rushing. She was completely taped up in her costume. We were all sweating, couldn’t bear it. So we had 15 minutes to film this, and that was the golden 15 minutes that we had out of this day. But from the very beginning, it was her idea.
CLR: So, you have a very elliptical transition from when Gena is worried in the embassy, trying to get a visa to travel, and then suddenly she’s at the airport and then in Paris. How did you decide to cut that sequence in that way where it’s almost a magical transition from, “I’m in trouble,” to “I’m in Paris.” How did that work in the process of putting this together?
AG: These are hard decisions to make because there was way more material following, not every step, but covering a lot of what was happening at that time. But first of all, it would never fit in the film. And secondly, I decided that putting those performances in the narrative allowed me to use the last one to have this magical transition from one place to another. Even though what I try to do with the sound there is to show that when she’s in Paris, it’s not like she arrived in a space where everything is going to change. It’s not like a fairy-tale-ish space.
AG: There are another bunch of difficulties ahead. And I really wanted people to understand that. Escaping from a really harsh reality, you’re not coming to some candy land, because living in Paris as a refugee is tough, especially without speaking the language. For Gena, it’s the first time that she’s abroad, so she has no idea how it works outside of Russia. I really tried to not fall in this mood like, “Oh my God, she escaped, and she’s going to be extremely great from the first second in the airport.”
CLR: I think you succeed in that goal. It’s great that she’s left and is safer, but I don’t feel like your film ends on a super triumphant note, which would not be appropriate.
CLR: Did you, as a film crew, face harassment as you were making this? You get awfully close to the police at some point when they’re arresting her and you’re in the middle of protests. What kinds of challenges did you face making the film in that regard?
AG: We had some situations. For me, first of all, it was very important that Gena was safe and that she felt that we were there for her. So every time when we were preparing ourselves to go out there for dangerous political things, I would contact, all the time, a lawyer to check how we should behave, what we should say, and where we should call if we got arrested. Also, I always had a backpack with things for Gena to change into, with scissors to cut her costume afterwards, and all the documents, passports, and so on.
When we were doing the Navalny demonstration, by some magic we were not arrested, even though we all thought we would be. But when Gena went out in the barbed-wire costume, she was arrested. I was behind her with this little backpack of mine, and they were not interested in arresting me. But I quickly realized that I have to do something to get in the car with her because I have no idea what would happen to her there. It’s not for the film. It’s just for our personal relationship and trust that we built. So I started to scream, “No to war!” And I jumped around. After that, they took me, too.
IM: We had to take it very seriously, and like what Agniia was talking about, we had consulted with lawyers who were on standby. But having a lawyer in a country like Russia might not get you out of jail or trouble because they just wouldn’t let them into the prison where you are held. What Agniia is describing is a very creative way to be sure that your protagonist and you as a crew are safe.
CLR: Thank you both for speaking with me and for making the film.
AG/IM: Thank you!