Home #Hwoodtimes QUEENDOM: A Young Russian Non-Binary Drag Performance Artist as a Powerful Political...

QUEENDOM: A Young Russian Non-Binary Drag Performance Artist as a Powerful Political Statement in Putin’s Russia

By Robert St. Martin

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 6/10/24 – Coming soon to art house theatres in Los Angeles is a fascinating documentary Queendom (2023) directed by Agniia Galdanova about Jenna Marvin, a queer, 21-year-old Russian artist who risks her life performing in surreal costumes throughout Moscow and elsewhere. This is a film about drag activist realness – far afield from the comfortable drag television reality shows of Hollywood! Jenna Marvin is a radical drag performance artist whose voice, style, and looks make a defiant assertion of queer life. To be clear, Jenna considers herself to be non-binary, identifying as a “she” although biologically male.

Queendom profiles Jenna as she takes the brave and bold decision to be visibly queer in Russia, a country with one of the most oppressive anti-LGBTQ+ societies in the world. Director Agniia Galdanova tracks Gena over four years as Jenna endeavors to share her art, but also her right to simply exist.Queendom is an essential snapshot of the fight for queer rights happening right now. This documentary first surfaced at the SXSW Film Festival and was featured at Outfest Los Angeles in 2023, where it was awarded Special Mention as Best Documentary Feature.

Queendom is a study of queer drag performance artist Jenna Marvin (born Gennadiy Chebotarev), who challenges the machismo of the Putin regime, the attack on Ukraine and the Russian state’s homophobic attitudes in general by taking to the streets in Moscow, either as part of a demonstration or on her own, always in extravagant, surreal outfits and vertiginous heels, like a Giacometti figure – sometimes subversively assuming the three colors of the Russian Federation’s flag. Often, she is beaten up by local thugs or hassled by the police.

The film’s director Agniia Galdanova explains in an interview how and why she made this film: “As a teenager, I had a hard time accepting myself and constantly endured humiliation and beatings because of my ‘unfeminine’ look. From an early age, I often pretended to be a boy, and wore shapeless clothes and heavy shoes. This was my refuge from the stereotype that a girl should be feminine. Years later, I was beaten up by two men in the very center of Moscow just because they had mistaken me for a guy in a skirt. I decided to explore the themes of sexuality and gender identity further in my work. My initial idea was to follow several drag queens across Russia. One of the first potential characters I met was Jenna. After spending time together, I was mesmerized by Jenna’s artistry and courage. To me, she wasn’t one of many drag queens. She was an artist embarking on a journey of self-discovery.”

Jenna (or Gena) Marvin was born in the grimly remote far eastern town of Magadan, which faces the remote Kamchatka Peninsula near the Bering Strait, far north of Vladivostok. Magadan is associated with forced labor camps or “Gulags” of the Stalin era. Here Jenna irritates the locals with drag experiments, but manages to build a wide following on TikTok. Jenna is an orphan who was brought up by her grandparents who adopted her and has an explosive relationship with her grandfather who never makes any secret of his alienation from Jenna’s identity and his profound irritation that it is getting Jenna into trouble. We never learn what happened to Jenna’s deceased mother. They insist on using her birth name of Gennadiy and encourage her to get a practical job at a factory or in the military. Her grandmother makes the best of it and responds with love. Despite the difficult relationship Jenna has with her grandparents, they do express concern about her well-being.

Jenna gets a scholarship to study in Moscow and moves there. But she got thrown out of college for being associated with political protests against Putin and had to come back to Magadan where she helps her grandfather with his livelihood fishing. Her grandfather is an interesting figure because he cannot understand Jenna’s obsession with high-heels and strange non-binary costumes but continually asks how Jenna can make a living that way. There is one moment when many might sympathize with the old guy: He asks, irritably, who is paying for Jenna’s performances? Well, no one of course … Jenna is building an online brand with the hope of monetizing it later on, a concept about which (perhaps understandably) her grandfather is skeptical. With the onset of Putin’s war against Ukraine, her grandfather demands that Jenna put on long pants and join the Russian army. Jenna (perhaps to humor him) finally shows up at the recruitment center in fatigues – but doesn’t enter.

Putin’s war against Ukraine is beginning and many young Russian men began trying to leave the county as quickly as possible with Putin’s demand for a huge military draft. It is estimates that more than 300,000 young men found ways to leave the Russian Federation and head to neighboring countries. Jenna figures that there is no future in Magadan or anywhere in Russia, so she contacts people who have connections in the fashion industry to help her get a visa out of Russia and head to France to seek asylum as a refugee.

We first met Jenna Marvin strutting out to take photos on the outskirts of Magadan, a Russian port town where the temperatures regularly reach 50 degrees below freezing, wearing tall black heels and long black gloves in contrast to a white suit that fades into the backdrop of the arctic tundra behind her. The glamorous photos eventually make their way onto Instagram in stark contrast to the scene that follows where security guards brusquely ask her to leave their grocery store for the sake of the children and elderly that shop there, with the unusual outfit considered to be lingerie.

The moment may be fleeting for both sides when Jenna can only stand her ground for so long, but she is unlikely to be deterred from doing the exact same thing all over again when making space for herself and other members of the LGBTQAI community, in the need to call attention to themselves so they can’t disappear without a trace in the untenable climate that currently exists there.

As much of a threat that’s posed to Jenna under the rule of Putin, who has hardly discouraged discriminatory practices and attitudes towards the gay community during his two decades-plus in government while only recently explicitly turning it into law with “anti-gay propaganda” legislation, Queendom suggests that attacks on Jenna are evidence of the greater threat she poses as a performance artist who can upend the damaging narrative that’s out there by simply walking around in the streets.

In the scenes shot in Moscow, Jenna’s splashy outfits draw the stares of Moscovites and fascination with the odd poses of this very tall creature. Director Agniia Galdanova uses these scenes to take a deeper look at the toll of the anti-Putin activism directly before the Ukraine War and the draconian measures imposed by Putin at the time of the invasion of Ukraine. The film, while somewhat meandering in its episodic structure, illustrates the risks that Jenna takes daily while sharing her art. Simply taking the subway to her site of protest, onlookers gawk. They stare at the strange figure painted white and wrapped in barbed wire. Security guards escort her from grocery stores. Shopping becomes a political act.

At sites of political protest, police and security guards advise her to leave for her own safety. This includes one sequence in which Jenna visits a park where the Russian Paratroopers assemble. Their rally, which carries tones of anti-LGBTQ+ violence, puts a chill in the air that underscores Jenna’s silent protest. When the cops force her away, onlookers murmur about taking “that thing” out of sight. She wraps herself in colored tape to evoke the Russian flag and joins the masses to protest the arrest of Alexei Navalny. Her visible queerness makes her an immediate target for the police.

Fleeing to France for asylum, the film closes with a haunting image right before the credits roll. Jenna, wearing nothing but a thong, heels, and a bucket’s worth of blood, strolls spookily through the streets of Paris. Her image is a huge cry for Ukraine as she uses her situation to highlight the plight of others in Putin’s war. In this month where LGBTQAI rights are celebrates in various PRIDE events, it is important to remember that in much of the world being “queer” is difficult, dangerous, and life-threatening.

Queendom is a film that will make you think about the meaning of being “other” and radically outside the norm. It will also help you understand what Russia is like today 35 years after the end of Communism and the former Soviet Union – modern in so many ways yet hampered by prevailing attitudes that leave little room for the visibility of LGBTQAI people.