Following an artist in her endeavour to fuse art and activism on the streets of Russia with otherworldly costumes, Queendom is not only a documentary of revelation but one of demonstration just as fervently. ‘Destructive appearances cause incidents’ is uttered some way through the film by a crowd-control soldier, in his efforts to calmly and passively remove Gena, the artist at the documentary’s centre, from a public park. His collected approach, however, ultimately elevates the irony of the quote; in an instruction-manual film about identity activism, the heinous, inhumane treatment of those who are just expressing themselves how they chose, existing outwardly as they feel inward, is one that needs to be treated with as much daring, provoking art-activism; something the subject of Queendom, as well as the way she is filmed, encapsulates gracefully.
At the very centre of the film is Gena, an artist from a small town in Russia who made a name for herself on social media with her otherworldly, often quite unsettling costumes. The point of the costumes, aside from that they exhibit exquisite creativity, is initially unclear; it seems that this is enough. They take on a different meaning, however, when we find out that Gena is proudly non-binary; the costumes become a de facto expression of this fact in response to the hate we see Gena receive, from both violent passersby initially, but also from her own grandfather. What follows is Gena’s, as well as filmmaker Agniia Galdanova’s, efforts to use Gena’s many performed characters, donning the costumes she makes by hand, as icons in the fight against Putin’s state, both as it transpires domestically in oppressive social policy and abroad in the war in Ukraine.
The film seems to ooze a very radical approach to criticising the state and elevating Gena’s liberated approach to life from every facet of its form and content, which it does, deliberately or not, through a framework introduced by Jose Ortega y Gasset in his novel El tema de nuestro tiempo (translates to ‘the theme of our time’; published in English as The Modern Theme). In his phenomenology of generations, Ortega y Gasset talks about the bidirectional struggle of each generation to define itself: ‘While it is constructing the new it has to defend itself from the old, and wield at one and the same time, like the renovators of Jerusalem, both the spade and the sword.’ This bi-directionality is central to both Gena and Galdanova’s aims; not only must they define themselves how they choose to be defined, but they must push even further to make it known that everyone should be allowed to define themselves how they see fit. The explosive creativity both in front and behind the camera, then, takes on a difficult but nonetheless empowered role in this activism.
Queendom, then, is far from an observational documentary; there is a clear purpose and drive behind Galdanova’s artistry. Gena risks it all in her activism, repeatedly appearing at anti-war marches wearing provocative costumes modelled on the Russian Federation flag, a visual polemic of the system that has failed her, which gets her initially kicked out of college and then in a state of needing to flee the country. For Galdanova and her team, the task of filming these events was just as difficult; in a Q&A after the screening, she talks about one of her cinematographers and cameraman Ruslan Fedotov needing to wear rollerskates while filming the protests so that he could evade arrest with the valuable footage if necessary. In making the documentary, then, the team were as at risk as Gena.
This shows us one direction of the struggle: that of overcoming preceding oppression. To match Gena’s incredible imagery, Galdanova, Fedotov and the rest of the film’s creative team intersperse the story with asides of pure visual poetry. Be it Gena writhing through mud in an insectine outfit, or being mauled by a group of bodies completely taped up in white blue and red, the push away from objective documentary (a decisive move that Galdanova jokes was not advised at film school) marks a concerted effort of self-definition that resonates throughout the film. The struggles that Gena as well as a large portion of society faces are very much real, so why shouldn’t her vivid, provocative self-expression belong in a film whose form has always been characterised by the real?
To this end, the final line of Queendom couldn’t be more important: having safely made it to Paris to start afresh, Gena phones her grandparents and, in a moment of bittersweetness (perhaps more bitter than sweet), her grandmother asks her not to ‘disappear’ from them. In the array of costumes that Gena dons, as well as the way in which Galdanova shoots them, one can’t help but feel that Gena’s objective self (or at least what we perceive of it) is lost. But we mustn’t forget that, according to those around her, Gena is anomalous, ‘dangerous’, and doesn’t fit into the society in which she was born. The objective self she wishes to fulfil is not respected, and so she must make her struggle plainly clear, she must physically affect us with empathy at her struggle and wonder at her bravery and defiance in the face of adversity. Above all else that Galdanova’s breathtaking documentary gives us, this sense of control and confidence for the future is most striking.
Edited by Martha Knox, Co-Film & TV Editor