Angii Galdanova manages to pull off several remarkable feats with Queendom (★★★★★, CRITIC’S PICK).
For starters, the film introduces the world to a drag queen from the farthest reaches of Russia — specifically, the industrial town of Magadan in northeastern Siberia, a frigid outpost of the Soviet gulag.
Gena, as the queen is known, is well worth getting to know, and she’s well-served by Galdanova’s documentary, which portrays her in such a compelling and sensitive light as to render any viewer an immediate fan.
More than that, though, Queendom provides a rare, candid glimpse into the tremendous plight and serious peril of Russians who identify as LGBTQ.
And things have only gotten worse since filming wrapped, with the passage late last year of an official ban on all LGBTQ “propaganda,” effectively making it a crime to be openly queer or to show queer-identified people in anything but a negative light — punishable by hefty fines and the very real threat of imprisonment.
Fortunately, that fate won’t befall Queendom, which was funded by French and American producers, including the Sundance Institute, or its Russian makers, now living as refugees elsewhere.
Fundamentally, Queendom wisely keeps the focus on providing a slice-of-life portrait of Gena, all drawn from footage spanning several years. Shortly after it starts, we travel with Gena for a 22nd birthday celebration with the grandparents who raised her as an only child.
The loving but provincial grandparents struggle to understand Gena’s nonbinary and queer identity, and even more her chosen pursuit of a career as a provocative makeup artist and drag performer with minimal and inconsistent compensation. Understandably, their complicated relationship becomes a key recurring theme in the film.
Queendom is interspersed throughout with captivating, wildly expressive, and physically rigorous performances by Gena, metaphorically evoking the pain and struggles she’s experienced or witnessed, and artfully staged for the camera at various dramatic locations in Russia.
Yet the most riveting scenes are those in which Galdanova merely follows Gena as she makes her way around, invariably turning heads by virtue of wearing the most exaggeratedly monstrous and eerily out-of-this world attire that all-but force even the most unobservant of passersby to notice.
The dramatic tension builds as Queendom progresses, with things coming to a head shortly after the start of war in Ukraine and a major antiwar protest that Gena, in full Russian flag-inspired tricolor regalia, participates in.
The film climaxes with a heated and emotional phone call between the grandparents and Gena, followed by a video performance of Gena struggling to free herself from the plastic that has been tightly wrapped around her body like a straightjacket — which serves as a metaphorical omen of her real-life circumstances.
Queendom plays on Sunday, Oct. 22, at 7 p.m. at The Eaton.
Live screenings of Reel Affirmations films are Oct. 20 to 22 at the Eaton Hotel, 1201 K St. NW, in Washington, D.C.
Reel Affirmations 2023 includes the Virtual Film Festival providing online access to 43 films for those film lovers who cannot attend the festival in person, with a viewing window from Oct. 23 to 29. Of the 43 films, 26 are available only online.
For a full schedule of films, including retrospective showings, all pricing and pass options, and party information, visit www.thedccenter.org/reelaffirmations.
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