Portrait of the Artist as a Work of Art


Director Agniia Galdanova's new documentary Queendom profiles Jennadiy (Jenna) Marvin, who is young, queer, and suppressed in her native Russia. Films about drag have become a burgeoning genre, but in this case, the notion of "drag" isn't big enough. We need a new category. Jenna Marvin's work transcends drag into performance art.

Her staged public performances are meant to mock, shock, and provoke. She herself is impossibly tall and impossibly thin. Her costumes are intricate constructions, combining forms of nature, science, and pantomime. Elongated extremities. Arachnid movements. Hair a nuclear explosion. Jenna descends from ceilings, crawls from holes, glides down escalators, slithers through subway cars. "I'm an anomaly," she says, a strange visitor from another planet.

"When I go out in character, I'm on top of the world," she proclaims. One would expect, then, a certain joie de vivre. Through much of Queendom, however, her demeanor is dour, even despondent.

It might be because she's living with her grandparents. Grandpa wants her to spend less time on her costumes and more on her studies, and she freaks out when Jenna is expelled. Grandma just wants peace. She calls Jenna "my little oddball."

It might be that she lives in Magadan, a soulless, snowbound industrial port town that used to be surrounded by prisons.

It might be the disdain. “You’re in the boonies now,” says her companion. “You’re obviously going to be met with aggression.” Men smirk as she walks by in full regalia. Jenna is berated and abused, at one point punched in the mouth by a random passerby. A neighbor yells down as she walks past her apartment window. “You’re a man. Act like one.”

It might be the isolation. The film spends much time with Jenna by herself, and her loneliness is palpable.

It might be Russia itself. Even in this modern day, it is illegal to be queer there (one of the fascinating aspects of the film is how much license Jenna is afforded in daily and night life, and for how long).

It definitely is politics. The film’s action happens under the shadow of Putin's regime. As a companion tells him, “Aggression is on the rise here. We have fear and subservience in our DNA.” Jenna attends (towers over) demonstrations such as for the release of dissident Alexei Navalny, navigating past lines of police, her costume in stark contrast to riot gear.

Ms. Galdanova has said in interviews that the film is timed to Jenna's "public coming out." It's not an easy process. She's booted from a supermarket (the cops say because children are present), threatened, insulted, even assaulted. In Moscow, Jenna receives validation. Auditioning for a runway show, she elicits a gasp from the fashion designer Alexandr Rogov. "A real-life monster!" he exclaims, excited that she'll represent his brand.

Jenna's plight is meant to be disturbing. When Queendom turns to a protest against the war in Ukraine, it becomes more than that. Her costume is special, an expression of truth to power. Preparing, assistants wrap her near-naked body in lengths of industrial fence wire, a body-crown of thorns. Tines stab her. "Does it hurt?" the accomplice asks. "Just do it," Jenna snaps. At the rally, Jenna is arrested. The courts will decide her fate.

Agniia Galdanova has directed other features about escape: Out of Place (2017) and One Step Forward, One Step Back (2020), about a family's dream to live far from civilization in the Altai Mountains. Queendom was conceived as part of a docuseries on drag queens but became a freestanding feature. She shot for two years, off and on, intrigued that a location like Magadan, so remote and haunted by the "historical weight" of Stalin-era prisons, could produce such an artist. It's to Ms. Galdanova's credit that she had started filming Jenna Marvin before her self-exile.

Queendom can be viewed as a plea for LGBTQ+ rights and for the freedom of the artist. It exists as a snapshot of resilience in an era of uncertainty that comes with change. In the end, Jenna is emblematic. Her final “costume” will stun you.


Queendom. Directed by Agniia Galdanova. From Greenwich Entertainment. 2023. In select theaters and on VOD. 98 minutes.

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