Staring social-political context straight in the face is something that most of us don't ever do enough, but director Agniia Galdanova tackles the intricacies of Russian society — and those who don't fit in — delicately in her new documentary, Queendom. FILMHOUNDS sat down with her to explore her journey documenting performance artist Gena Marvin.
“Loved” doesn't feel like the right word to use, but I feel I had such an emotional ride of the peaks and pits through Queendom. The way you've managed to capture one person's journey is really touching. How did the project come together for you?
I started writing a small treatment during COVID-19, and my idea was to create a docu-series about the Russian drag community. I started to look for a protagonist and Gena was one of the potentials. When we met with her in person, I quite quickly realised that I didn't need another person. I never regretted my choice of Gena because she has so many layers. I had no idea what was going to happen. I'm not speaking about the [Russo-Ukraine] war, just the way she was unfolding in front of the camera. In the beginning, the focus was more on drag, but then Gena completely stopped doing drag in the conventional way of seeing it. I realised that it's not even close to drag — it's like pure art. So then the political layer came. It's also a very clear portrayal of Russian society. It's not only Gena's family but a very universal portrayal of relationships in a family where a queer person is not accepted.
Was it the social-political context that drew you to looking at drag in Russia? Across the world at the moment, we're having these conversations where there's a question of drag being an issue for so many of us.
When we started Queendom, there wasn't this movement like what is going on now in the U.S. or somewhere in Europe. For us in Russia, we were looking at what's going on in the West — there was a lot of freedom and everyone can do what they want. In Russia, there are still a lot of gay clubs, but not many people have the courage to bring up these things, everything is behind closed doors. Firstly I wanted more to celebrate the drag community, like watching RuPaul's Drag Race. Why don't Russian queens deserve that kind of celebration? So that was one of my ideas, not to focus on my own problems but to bring visually striking and emotionally very meaningful stories on screen. But for sure, you cannot avoid problems that we have in Russia with LGBTQ+ people, and it was clear that we were going to speak about it, just the approach was different at first.
We essentially are following somebody's life very intimately, and here are quite a number of instances in Queendom where things are teetering on the edge of collapse. How do you create that sense of trust between you and whoever it is that's on the other side of the camera?
That's one of the most important things for me. And it requires time. I guess I'll never do documentaries with ‘talking heads' interviews because that's the easy way to access the information that you need. If you really want to understand the subject, you need to invest time, and that went even further because we became very close friends. Now we're like family to each other because we went through so many things. Gena would pick up my daughter from kindergarten and I would let her stay in my place for however long she needed. So there are no rules. We built up the trust through this beautiful and rough time of filming. I have to say a huge thanks to Gena for allowing me to enter her life and for trusting me on this level.
Talking of feeling like a family, did you ever feel like you had to stop yourself from interfering with what was happening in front of the camera? We've got verbal assaults, and physical altercations happening frequently. Did that ever become too much?
That's a very controversial question for documentary filmmakers because there's big discussion and everyone sets up their own limits. With Gena, we had a lot of talks and we agreed on certain things. I didn't know we'd get in trouble during filming, and Gena always asked us to not be close to her so people didn't see that we were shooting. She always wanted people to think about the performance first. It was the same with her grandparents — she told me that it was between them, and my interaction would just bring more harm. It was not easy for us to witness that and to silently stay there, and also for our cinematographer to point the camera at people in such moments. There are a lot of ethical questions that you ask yourself. One of the first rules is that whoever is filmed has to know that they are filmed. We're conscious about what we're doing.
Do you think we give performance art the respect it deserves? I feel like as an art form, even here, we're just very quick to dismiss it or sort of rubbish it as not being impactful enough or traditional enough or whatever it is.
I totally agree with that. It's a very weird form of art. We also had this talk with Gena because she could not identify herself as what kind of artist she was for some time but it became clear that she's a performance artist. There is no culture, especially in Russia. I guess in England, it has improved. People can understand a painting on the wall and what that looks like, or a painting or film. Performance art is something that happens and then it's gone. I think there's a lot of beauty and meaning in this because you catch this moment in real life. I think it's very important to educate people about performance art and the way we capture performances. Each of them deserves to be cut out from our film and put in the museum.
On the other side of the coin, you're really in the thick of social activism and protests, and seeing Gena vulnerably putting herself in full view in the way that she did. Even from where we're sitting, every time you turn up to a protest, it feels that little bit more dangerous. Do you feel like the activism that you see in Queendom can be sustained? Is it too dangerous for us?
It really depends. When you go out on the street in Russia with a certain message, you cannot predict what's going to happen. When Gena was at the protest, she was in a Russian flag costume. I thought we were going to get arrested, but somehow we didn't. She had a lot of questions, particularly about people thinking she was a walking propaganda piece. It's all a reflection of what's happening and the Russian people. It is provocation but in a positive form, because it's the type of provocation that Russian society needs to wake up to. To see something unusual which could create some questions in their minds. That's super brave. I cannot imagine myself doing that. Gena is so resistant to fear — but at the same time she's a human being and she was scared. But she was always doing it. A couple of times I tried to ask her to not do what she planned to do, but she said, “Well, if you don't want to film it, don't. I'm going anyway.” So I had no choice but to follow and to protect as much as we could.
How important is it to celebrate our differences?
It's essential. We are all different and there's no way to put people in the boxes or categories. If we speak for ourselves, we explain who we are. For the ones who need more visibility, we create — and hopefully, more changes are coming.
Queendom is released on December 1st.