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Queendom

Jenna Marvin is a fearless 21-year-old queer artist in Russia. Using found objects, layers of makeup and tape, and a jaw-dropping amount of creativity, she manifests otherworldly outfits and strange creatures that seem to have fallen out of a sci-fi TV show and onto the streets of Moscow. Some of her outfits are fun and fanciful, others are directly political, drawing attention to the causes that matter most to Jenna. Her public drag performances earn the curiosity of the public; others scorn her, and the police are only too happy to keep her away from others. Jenna and her friends sometimes film these harsh encounters to capture the homophobic anger her silent presence in public spaces provokes in strangers. But after attending a protest taped in the colors of the Russian flag, Jenna is expelled from beauty school and returns home to Magadan, where her grandparents live and where she must decide for herself how to survive. 

Agniia Galdanova’s sympathetic portrait of the young artist finds Jenna at a delicate moment. One false move, and she could end up in even further trouble with the state. Wait too long to leave, and she could be conscripted into the country’s war on Ukraine. Through Jenna’s experiences, Galdanova’s “Queendom” shows how hostile the country remains to the queer community. Jenna is punished for protesting, for her art, and for simply walking around a grocery store or public spaces in costume. Every outdoor scene comes with a hint of danger, but mostly Jenna attracts puzzled stares. In a world where few people like Jenna feel safe enough to walk outside in an audacious costume, a performer like her is something of a novelty. 

Thankfully, “Queendom” is not a dull documentary on a fascinating subject. In addition to following Jenna through the highs and lows of her time as an artist in Russia, it gives her the space to create performances for the camera, visually accentuating her story in her own style. That includes scenes of Jenna surrounded by a gang of faceless bodies in red, white, and blue as they crowd and bury her as the school reads its decision to expel Jenna or in a mosquito-like costume wandering a strange sandy landscape. These scenes can be funny or serious, like when Jenna wraps up her body, head to toe in gold lamé to wander a desolate theme park and halfheartedly ride one of the rundown attractions, or when she emerges out of a cocoon of what looks like saran wrap, gasping for air as it seems she might be in danger of getting stuck in Russia at a time of war. 

Galdanova and cinematographer Ruslan Fedotov give Jenna marvelous closeups, highlighting the nuances of her performance, the articulate lines of makeup, and intricate costume designs for a dazzling effect. It's almost as if sleek music videos kept popping up during the on-the-ground filming of Jenna in public. 

A world away from Moscow, Magadan is a desolate place, a former Soviet-era gulag that lived on past that chapter in the country’s history. Yet Jenna is in danger whether she’s in a major city or a rural town because Russia has only penalized its queer citizens, not protected them. Jenna is strikingly bold in her performance and courage, taking her creations to the streets, the faces of the people who might reject her, and this documentary. 

She’s not afraid to put her body on the line for the sake of protest, but she’s not so guarded as to leave out her personal life, itself an emotional tug-of-war between loving her grandparents and frustrated by their reactions to her. They don’t always quite understand her art or why she feels the need to put her safety at risk. They ask her to conform out of fear for her, and time and again, Jenna has to explain why that’s impossible. The struggle to be accepted as a queer person is fought on many fronts, be that internal, societal, and sometimes the most painful of all, with one’s family. Although Jenna’s protest art is strikingly her own, her journey of self-discovery and empowerment is a story many share. 

Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a critic, journalist, programmer, and curator based in New York City. She is the Senior Film Programmer at the Jacob Burns Film Center and a contributor to RogerEbert.com.

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Queendom movie poster

Queendom (2024)

98 minutes

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