Indie Film: Otherness comes into focus in films screening this week

Gena Marvin in documentary “Queendom.” Photos courtesy of courtesy of Dogwoof Releasing

It’s a week of eye-opening, thought-provoking LGBTQ-themed cinema in Maine.

In director Agniia Galdanova’s 2023 documentary “Queendom,” the first image we see of performance artist Gena Marvin essentially defines “otherness.” Taking the arm of a female friend, a strikingly tall, thin and elaborately costumed figure totters on the highest of heels into the snow of a frigid rural Russian winter. Removing outerwear to reveal a skin-tight bodysuit and ghostly makeup, the figure directs a photo shoot on her cellphone, minutely adjusting poses and gestures while the icy wind turns the abandoned scenery into a world as alien as it is hostile.

That bone-chilling menace stalks “Queendom” – which is showing at Portland’s Space on Monday, Dec. 11 – even as the film’s subject strides purposefully through various incongruous locations in the tiny Russian town of Magadan, where Marvin grew up. Introduced first and almost always referred to by her birth name, Gennadiy, during Galdanova’s intimately eye-opening new film, the artist is shown to be as much of an alien in this isolated backwater as her most fanciful characters are in the popular online videos that have netted Marvin hundreds of thousands of social media followers.

Not that any of that worldwide virtual fame is of much consequence in the artist’s daily life. There, Marvin is just a tall, shaven-headed adult orphan whose life with her bickering grandparents sees the openly non-binary aspiring performer worrying about upcoming mandatory military conscription, a fraught university life, and the ever-present danger of anti-LGBTQ+ violence in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. After being kicked out of a local supermarket for shopping while in full, post-photo shoot regalia, her friend reminds the shaken Martin, “Aggression’s on the rise here,” and assesses the current Russian mindset, saying, “We have fear and subservience in our DNA.”

Marvin grew up in the tiny Russian town of Magadan.

Throughout “Queendom,” this young performer is often, indeed, afraid. A shouting match with a drunken neighbor about her appearance on the street leaves Martin with a bloody lip, and she receives a video from a cross-dressing friend detailing a brutal beating at the hands of two men in a public park. Meanwhile, her grandparents continually hector the young man they steadfastly call Gennadiy, with the more sympathetic grandmother yet referring to her as “my little oddball,” while the fisherman grandfather alternates between anti-gay slurs and stubborn demands that their wayward ward buckle down and just act normal, for her own safety.

Normal, for Marvin, is the enemy. And in Putin’s Russia (where recent laws banning “LGBTQ propaganda” have made being gay there a criminal offense), normal is Marvin’s target. Defiantly going into the streets decked out in provocative costumes recalling sources as varied as the cinematic phantasms of masters Guillermo del Toro and Hayao Miyazaki and the internet boogeyman Slender Man, Marvin makes herself a spectacle – and a target. Multiple times, Galdanova’s cameras watch anxiously as Marvin’s brazen strolls seem on the edge of thuggish violence, none more so than when she, wrapped painfully head-to-toe in real barbed wire, stalks nearly naked to a protest against Putin’s just-launched invasion of Ukraine. As Marvin is loaded unceremoniously into an unmarked police van, we’re all too aware of just what a precarious position she’s in, as Putin’s troops beat protesters with billy clubs on all sides.


“Queendom” is a portrait of the artist as a young non-binary provocateur, Marvin’s steadfast pursuit of artistic and political attention seeing her being expelled, arrested, menaced and eventually seeking escape to Paris in a fevered scene at the government visa offices. And yet Galdanova never loses sight of the troubled individual at the heart of her documentary, the tearful confrontations with Marvin’s grandparents a lacerating mix of misunderstanding, mulish bigotry and undeniable, if deeply tangled, affection. Trying to explain her incomprehensible-to-them course on the phone from Paris late in the film, the emotional Marvin pleads, “I saw a normal city. Nobody’s going to grab or kick or shove me. I feel like just a human being here.” To her grandfather’s continued objections to her dressing in drag, Marvin states of her ostentatious homemade accoutrement, “They complete me – they’re basic needs.”

It takes courage to be who you truly are. (Even if you’re, for example, a cis white middle-aged male in an America seemingly tailored to your every whim.) For Gena Marvin, a non-binary, queer artist in a Russia where anti-LGBTQ+ hate is the brutal and sanctioned norm, courage is beauty, and confrontation. “Queendom” is a moving, visually stunning, and often harrowing depiction of both the power and the terrifying vulnerability of simply being yourself. In some of Marvin’s most striking works, she writhes in spectacular, grotesque agony amidst post-apocalyptic landscapes culled from her homeland’s most abandoned and hostile places. As metaphor, it’s powerful. As reality, it’s heroic.

“Queendom,” 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 11, with an in-person Q&A with producer Igor Myakotin following, Space, 538 Congress St., Portland; $9, $7 for Space members.

On the theme of queer provocateurs, there’s nobody more gleefully brilliant at undermining the sexual status quo than legendary Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, and his latest short film, “Strange Way of Life,” brings some big Hollywood star power and the director’s signature flair to a tale of forbidden love in the Old West.

Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal play old riding buddies whose decades-later reunion sees the unspoken be spoken, all with Almodóvar’s matchless mix of melodrama, visual opulence and shockingly affecting emotion crafting a modern deconstruction of macho American myths. Paired with the director’s equally outstanding 2020, Tilda-Swinton-starring short “The Human Voice,” this all-Almodóvar mini-festival is a typically bracing, brilliant, and entertaining can’t-miss showcase for one of the world’s greatest living directors.

“Strange Way of Life” and “The Human Voice,” various times Friday through Sunday, Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland; $9, $7 for PMA members and students.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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