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Queendom – BFI London Film Festival 2023 (Film Review)

3 min read

Courtesy of BFI

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Following the shocking invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022, the already fragile LGBT community within Russia was now being faced with real laws banning any outward expression of being queer. The punishment for doing so was instant imprisonment. Gena (a transgender and anti-war activist) knew the consequences, but despite this she flaunted the laws in Queendom. In a viscerally powerful show of protest, Gena walks the dark streets of Moscow wearing leather waist high heels, lingerie and (in a nod to the war) barbed wire wrapped excruciatingly tight around her body. It is just one of many examples of her fearless bravery showcased in the documentary.

Gena is from a very rural part of Russia, and most of the people who live there are far from supportive of her artistic expression. At times she uses humour to attempt to defuse heated situations (and she is very funny), but during others the sheer tide of alpha male culture in Russia resorts to violence, taking some kind of offence at Gena’s self-expression. At one point, a woman shouts out at Gena from a block of apartments, ‘What kind of man dresses like that?’ and soon after the audience bears witness to LGBT violence firsthand. Sitting on the floor holding her nose, Gena’s face is covered in blood, one incident that went beyond just words; the irony being that Gena has more bravery than almost anyone. Who else would have the nerve to dress in lingerie and high heels through a Russian military parade in the centre of Moscow? She does so with full confidence, aware of the consequences, but the moral urgency of her beliefs is too strong to do otherwise.

It is an original and eye-opening perspective on a culture that is often behind closed doors. The most revealing parts of the documentary are the emotional phone calls between Gena and her grandparents. At times they are shockingly abusive and disapproving of her cause, with the cultural and generational hurdles just too strong, even for family members, to overcome. The phone calls provide emotional touch points, along with the artistic montages that show Gena’s inner conflict, and it’s this aspect that is portrayed well by the director, Agniia Galdanova. It is best shown at a particularly dramatic point in the narrative, as Gena is dropped by her university due to attending anti-government protests in the heart of Moscow. Gena then sadly must move back to her tiny town in rural Russia with her Grandparents and the cinematography captures the heartache and melancholy beautifully. The scenes are shown with vast desolate backdrops of the Russian wilderness, which is ever present, showing the audience the sense of despair and loneliness, she feels at her life.

The lengths taken by the director to shoot Queendom is quite admirable. Speaking at the BFI London Film Festival, Galdanova explained that because of the danger of getting arrested while shooting, the cameraman ingeniously wore roller-skates to make a quick getaway, preserving the film. Many times, the director had frank, difficult conversations with Gena, warning her against certain situations, fearing her safety but Gena refused to back down, telling the director she was welcome to stay at home, although she would protest regardless.

Overall, the film ticks a lot of boxes. It is an original, moral, and deeply emotional piece that leaves the viewer contemplating it long after the film has finished. Galdanova intelligently conveys to the audience the unique life of Gena while still maintaining the heart and soul of her personality. It is a film that keeps you interested from start to finish and is a must see this year.

Queendom was shown as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.