For Russian performance artist Gena Marvin, art is a form of protest. Anti-LGBTQ discrimination is rampant in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s government where distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional relationships” is now illegal among any age group.
Gena stages radical queer performances using outfits repurposed from ordinary materials, both through social media and in public. In doing so, she risks harassment, abuse, and even imprisonment.
She is the subject of a new documentary, Queendom, that premiered at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Film & TV Festival. We spoke with the film’s director Agniia Galdanova on using art as protest, how she and Gena kept safe amidst political turmoil, and getting arrested while filming.
You can read our interview below. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Matt Davis: To start out, in your own words, tell me what Queendom is all about and how this project came into fruition?
Agniia Galdanova: Well Queendom started from a very different project in 2019. I had an idea during COVID to make a docu-series about different drag queens all over Russia and to go in Siberia or some difficult regions, to see how it's there. But then I met Gena, and very quickly realized that I have to focus on Gena, because already back then she was very unique even though she just started to develop this style.
And for me that was the best gift for me as a documentary director, because… what Gena does is an art, it's not a drag queen performance. You see, it's way deeper and bigger than that. So that's how it started.
And then we were just hanging out together and I didn't start to film her immediately. I was checking and doing some test shootings. And the first official shooting of Queendom with Gena was in February 2020. We went to her hometown, Magadan. It's a very small Russian town in the Far East. It's close to Japan. So even for Russians is like somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
And Igor [Myakotin], my producer is also from this town. That was very unique for us to meet. Because apart from these two persons, Gena and Igor never met anybody else from this town. And that was like an extremely weird, but destiny-like coincidence.
So I know you've talked a little bit about Gena's art form. It's very provocative, even a little bit scary. So, I was just wondering if you could speak a little bit more to how her own artistry influenced this documentary?
Well, first of all, it's the story of growth as an artist. Because in front of my eyes, it was kind of unfolding more and more and she was trying and testing different aspects of it. But the core of her art I think, it's her inner pain. And she had a very hard time growing up and I think it's a beautiful way to express it and to not hold it inside yourself.
But at the same time, she is a very curious person and doesn't stop on something. For example, right now she's saying that she's so done with duct tape and is searching for new materials to work with. She started from small things. When we met she had only 5000 followers on Instagram, and now it's like over 100 [thousand].
I think for her it's important to evolve and to try new things. And for me it was an amazing gift when she started to have interest in political aspects of art. And that's when we kind of had to invent what we call a “drag activist.” We had a lot of discussions on how she would express herself during demonstrations. And she always was like, “No, I'm never going to hold a sign saying something. I'm the sign. I'm the walking message.”
And also I have my idea in mind how it should be. So we were discussing it. And then I realized that I don't need to give any advice on that, because she has a very clear and very strong vision of how she wants to present her art. And I have a huge respect for that, because it's not only beautiful, but also brave. And, yes, it's scary for some but for some people, for example, my daughter loves it!
I was wondering if you could speak a little bit more towards the artistry as a form of protest? And what sort of social change and message do you think comes out of it?
Well, the provocative side, especially in Russia, is a tool. Because not everybody would have enough bravery to go on the street in such a look because you can be easily beaten up or arrested. Or now it's even worse because when we were still in Russia there was not this new law against LGBTQ people. And now I think it's even harder to do such things.
And for example, we made an experiment one time. And we all put on the makeup. Like our DP [Director of Photography Ruslan Fedotov] did that. I did that. Well, for me, it was easier, but just to understand how it is. And, for example, our DP didn't make it outside. He was like, “No, I'm not going to go outside like this” [laughs].
So just on this very simple and small thing, you can understand that it looks so easy. You don't do much. You're not climbing a high mountain or whatever. You just dress up and you go on the street, but in places like Russia it's a lot already. And I think it's not a straightforward way to protest. But I think it goes deeper in minds of people when it's on this subtle level, which is not very subtle [laughs] but the you know what I mean?
And I have to wonder with so many things going on in the world, and Russia specifically, at the time- you know, the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine and the anti-LGBTQ sentiment was there ever a concern for the personal safety for the crew that's filming this?
For sure. Her personal safety was one of the key questions for me all the time. And every time we were planning something to do on the streets, I was trying to kind of think ahead. All the stuff that could happen to us if we're going to be arrested, how we should do it, and I was contacting all the time lawyers just to have advice.
When we went to film a performance for support of Alexei Navalny, when she was in the Russian flag, I was carrying a huge bag to change [clothes], with scissors to take off [the outfit] in case if we go to jail. And actually that would happen with us when Gena put the barbed wire around her. And then we both got arrested. And luckily, I had the bag with me with all the needed tools to get rid of the wire and that she can change and then I knew exactly how we should talk to police and what we should say to not get in even more trouble.
And Igor was always helping with organizing all the safety questions. So, yeah, I mean, we've been well-prepared. When we were planning to go out with the barbed wire, we even thought of not putting it here [motions at wrist] from here to elbow because that's where police grab you. And if you hurt policemen in Russia, you immediately got another criminal charge of hurting policemen. So we thought about these kinds of small things, just to prevent even worse consequences of what Gena was doing. First of all, for her.
When she got arrested that time, they were not really targeting me to arrest because we had our cinematographer on rollerskates. He's able to escape if they want to arrest him. But for me, it was no question that I also have to be arrested just to be in the same car with Gena, to help her to change and to talk to police. So I did everything so they'd arrest me, too [laughs].
I commend you for your work, for your protest, and for your art to go through that. There are some really beautiful and haunting sequences of Gena posing with her looks throughout the film. What it was like to collaborate on these visual performances together?
All the visual performances were way more spontaneous than, for example, political actions. Because very fast, we understood with Gena that we're on the same page, taste-wise. And our DP as well was, you know, one of the crucial members of this because he's just brilliant and a very talented cinematographer.
And I don't know, we'd just drive in Magadan and see [laughs] mud and have an idea of maybe we should do something here? And then the next day, we would come back and try out things. Sometimes it was cold, painful. Or even [we'd be] nervous because, for example, when Gena was doing her golden-covered performance, there was a big tension because her grandfather forbid her to do anything. And immediately if you're on the street as Gena Marvin, everybody's gonna post an Instagram. So we decided to cover her face. And she was very nervous that he would find out.
Everyone was in such a tension at that moment. So every time it's something different or it's like extremely cold. For example, when we were in winter in Magadan, there [were temperatures] of negative forty.
And from this intensity comes something special, because we all push ourselves to the limits. And when you reach this limit, it's something naturally beautiful.
So what would you say would be the main thing that you got out of filming this documentary that either changed your perspective, whether it was on drag artistry or forms of protest? How would you say that you grew as a filmmaker and as a person?
Well, this project gave me so much. And was better than any university, on a lot of levels. It's interesting what you're saying, because in terms of forms of protest, that's one of the things that I recently realized because I had a long history of going to protests. And every time it's the same way, you hold a sign or you scream something or you just march and, yes, it's some kind of new, very unique form [of protest].
I don't see it so much out there. And that's one of the things that I learned for sure that there are no boundaries. You can express whatever you want to express in any way. But another important thing is personal for me, because what I've seen in Gena when we met, that's what I felt a lot of during a lot of my time [as a teenager]. And I was not as brave as her.
And I think it's very important for somebody who is now in this period of time when you are not really sure who you are and the world is not accepting you to not hide and to not kind of restrict yourself because that's what happened to me. But then watching Gena and being lucky to you know, to capture it. I learned a lot. How to open up to the world and be be yourself.
Definitley, she is a fearless person. So I have huge admiration for her. I assume she's still in France doing okay?
Yes, she is in Paris. And recently there was good news. She got her asylum papers. Unfortunately, she could not come here [at SXSW] because there's not yet actually a piece of paper. But maybe later? And, yes, she's good. We're gonna go together to Copenhagen soon for the international premiere.
To wrap it up, what would you say is the main thing that you hope people take away from this documentary, once they leave the theater?
I think the main thought is there is love out there for everyone. And there is hope for the better because no matter what happened to you, even the worst thing that you can imagine, there is always a way out.
For more information on where Queendom is playing, visit their website here.