It often takes actual physical courage to be different anywhere you grow up – but it takes superhuman courage to be different in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Queendom is a study of queer drag performance artist Gena 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 colours of the Russian Federation’s flag. Often she is beaten up.
Gena was born in the grimly remote far eastern town of Magadan, associated with forced labour camps of the Stalin era; here she infuriated the locals with drag experiments, got a wide following on TikTok, then moved to Moscow to study. Then she got thrown out of college and had to come home, before finally going to France as a refugee. She is also an orphan who was brought up by her grandparents and has an explosive relationship with her grandfather who never makes any secret of his alienation from Gena’s identity and his profound irritation that it is getting Gena into trouble. He even demands that Gena join the army and Gena (perhaps to humour him) finally shows up at the recruitment centre in fatigues – but doesn’t enter.
There is, however, one moment when many might sympathise with the old guy: he asks, irritably, who is paying for Gena’s performances? Well, no one of course … Gena is building an online brand with the hope of monetising it later on, a concept about which (perhaps understandably) her grandfather is sceptical. This film itself is perhaps an income stream for Gena, although in Paris there is presumably a living to be made in the fashion industry. I would have liked to hear more about Gena’s late mother and the family history generally, but this is an arresting portrait.
• Queendom is released on 1 December in UK cinemas and on digital platforms.