Exploring “The Magic Life of V” at Sundance Film Festival

If you’re a human on this earth, it’s very likely you’ve gone through some sort of hardship. How did you deal with it? How did you deal with the repercussions? For Veera, she enters a whole new world as a different person and works her way through her struggles with LARPing (live-action role-playing).

The Magic Life of V is a beautifully shot film by Bulgarian director Tonislav Hristov that explores the emotions of someone going through some life problems and shows how she comes into her own and becomes the hero of her own story.

Veera is a woman from Finland who has experienced severe trauma in her childhood due to an abusive father and has taken care of her mentally disabled brother well into adulthood. In creating her LARPing character, V, she is able to adopt an entirely new persona and become a new person, if only for a few days. However, after LARPing for so long, Veera begins to take her character’s strength and adopt it into her own life, thus, in turn, helping her move past all the hurt she has experienced.

This film is a part of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance and follows Veera around to her various adventures to show how LARPing helps her overcome her internal struggles and move forward with her life. Sitting down for an exclusive interview with MuggleNet, Hristov revealed that this film took a whopping five years to make and that they only filmed a few days a year.

The way I make films, they’re quite expensive. […] And to be honest, [in] the beginning, most of the financiers were not very excited about a film about LARPing and a girl with father issues. So it’s really hard to sell.

The amount of time it took to make the film, however, ended up working out well for Veera in the end, because after five years, she was ready to meet her father again after fifteen years.

For Veera, LARPing is more than a fun thing to do on weekends. She is very devoted, and that is part of what drew in Hristov and made him want to give her a platform to tell her story. He believes that LARPing allows her to draw strength from her character into everyday life.

My uncle asked me to go to hunting and fishing, and I cannot kill a fish. And then I went with him and then he gave me the fish, alive, and said, ‘Now cut the head and let’s have a dinner.’ And I know that I could never do this, but I’d been playing a hunter, LARPing for some time. So then I became my character and I just cut it and dealt with it. And this is exactly what I liked, the idea. They do believe that if you get a proper strength from your character, you can put it into your real life.

Some of Veera’s LARPing adventures take her to the College of Wizardry (COW) in Poland, where there are many nods to the Harry Potter world, such as a Great Hall and Sorting Ceremony. They spent nearly a week filming scenes for the documentary at COW.

Throughout the film, we get to see a full spectrum of human emotion from Veera – the highs and the lows. We see her relationship with her brother go through its share of trials. We see her grow and become a strong woman who takes control of her own narrative. The film is shot delicately and never once feels like Veera is “acting.” It’s as if the camera isn’t even there and you’re just on these adventures with her. This shows what a talented filmmaker Hristov is and what an impeccable job he does with making sure everyone is comfortable.

This film is one that documents the journey of self-acceptance rather than self-discovery.

Hristov has one message he wants viewers of the film to walk away with:

Well, to me, it was the amazing way of how she dealt by using these games and gaining strength with them. And I think that this is the message to me, that if you need to get stronger or you need to kill your demons, don’t be afraid to face them. Just build up your own strength and just go do it. Because this is the only way to move on with your life.

If you’ve been looking for something to use as an outlet to help overcome personal issues you may have, perhaps you should consider LARPing. I highly recommend that you see The Magic Life of V if you are given the opportunity.

To read the full transcript of our interview with Tonislav Hristov, click the toggle below!

Full Transcript with Tonislav Hristov, Thursday, January 24, 2019

Megan Fischer: This is a documentary so this is obviously a true story. And so the people in the film, are they the actual people? Okay, they are. I wasn’t sure.

Tonislav Hristov: Yes, because it looks like all I ever work with. It looks really cinematic, but it’s very important to me. But it takes time to make people feel comfortable and this is for Veera and her family.

Megan: Yeah, I couldn’t tell. I was like, “Either this is a really great actress…”

[Megan and Tonislav laugh]

Megan: Okay. How did you meet her and her family?

Tonislav: I met Veera maybe six or seven years ago. I had a film called Love & Engineering before that premiered in Tribeca, and she was a friend of one of the characters. They came to the premiere and I met Veera there, a nice girl, and then, later on, we met many times and she told me about LARPing. And at the beginning, I didn’t know much about LARPing. I knew much about gaming because I used to be a gamer, like, computer gaming, and my film about engineering was about engineers and games. But in Finland, I’ve seen the whole scenery of LARPing because you can see usually people on the streets in medieval clothing or something, so I was like, “Okay. I know what LARPing is now.” And then she told me more about it and that she’d done so much LARPing, and then she told me about the world of LARPing and I started getting interested [in] it. And then I heard about a big… It’s not supposed to be called Harry Potter LARP…

Megan: Because of copyright stuff.

Tonislav: Exactly, copyright stuff. So it’s supposed to be the College of Wizardry, they call it. So it is nowhere in the film.

Megan: Yeah, I remember hearing about that. It was a thing in Poland.

Tonislav: Poland, yes. It’s at Czocha Castle. It’s gigantic; I mean, it’s huge. So she was going to do it, and we were like, “Okay,” and I knew some of the organizers; they were some friends. The guy [whom] she talked with [at] the beginning on the bus, and then he’s the same guy with her when she’s in the dark place and she breaks the character. He’s the same guy, Mike Pohjola. He’s a friend of mine. And then I was like, “Okay,” and Mike said, “I can arrange for your crew, but there are rules. In order to be in LARPing, you need to be part of the game.” So the whole crew, we needed to learn the game and be part of the game and everything. So I was really excited about this because I knew that Veera had a very dark past, and I knew she had a problem of childhood traumas. I was not sure how much she would open about this, but I liked the idea that the LARPing helped her move on with her life. So I was like, “Okay, this is a very good motivation that we could film there.” So we just jumped into the Polish Harry Potter world and we spent five or six days there with everyone else, and it was fascinating. I liked it so much, and people were extremely nice. And then at that moment, I realized how important these games are for them, for everyone who was there. Then we went back to Finland and the hope was filming took around five years because the way I make films, they’re quite expensive. So in order to collect money… And to be honest, [in] the beginning, most of the financiers were not very excited about a film about LARPing and a girl with father issues. So it’s really hard to sell. All my previous films also premiered at Sundance and it was limited for films to be successful. But it was really hard because the previous ones were political, but this is not political. And then they were like, “Okay, Toni, are you sure?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I really have a good feeling for this film,” so I went with my guts. But it took us, like I said, a long time to collect the money and so we filmed a few days each year. So things were happening. For example, [at] the beginning of the film when they talk with the brother, she said she hadn’t seen her father for over ten years, and then at the end, she says at the train that she hadn’t seen him for 15 years. So there’s a gap of four and a half years between the two shootings.

Megan: Wow. That is a long time. That’s about as long as it took to film all three Lord of the Rings films.

[Megan and Tonislav laugh]

Tonislav: Pretty much the same. Well, mid-time I do a lot of jobs. I had another film when we were still collecting money, in the middle. But some films, it takes more time. But [in] the end, it was nice because she was ready to make the final. It’s a long process, of course, and for her, it has been even longer. But she felt strong, so that was good.

Megan: That is good. So was it just curiosity about LARPing or was there something specific about her that drew you in and made you think this would be a great story to tell?

Tonislav: I knew she was devoted to LARPing. She has the tools and all the stuff. They told me it’s more than just a fan. It’s her dream. And then I knew that when she talked about being a character that you see that it’s really important to her. So to me, her devotion was the trigger, and then that she wanted to deal with the problems with her father. She wanted to be strong enough, and this was a good beginning motivation for me.

Megan: So yeah, I think the story is simultaneously a beautiful story because she becomes her own hero, in the description of the movie, but it’s also heartbreaking and beautiful. It’s everything. [laughs] Obviously everybody deals with trauma in their own way, but what was it about LARPing that maybe helped her? Was it becoming somebody else?

Tonislav: Exactly. Yes, the LARPing, the strength. She gets so much strength from her characters. And this, for example, College of Wizardry, is not happening once. It’s happening several years for a few times. So people go back and back and their characters develop and it makes it much stronger. And then we talked at the beginning… There’s one very good example that the other guy I talked about, Mike, told me when I was still getting to know what LARPing is. My uncle asked me to go to hunting and fishing, and I cannot kill a fish. And then I went with him and then he gave me the fish, alive, and said, “Now cut the head and let’s have a dinner.” And I knew that I could never do this, but I’d been playing a hunter, LARPing for some time. So then I became my character and I just cut it and dealt with it. And then this was exactly what I liked, the idea. It’s all inside of everyone. They do believe that if you get a proper strength from your character, you can put it into your real life, at least what’s happening with them. And I like this, that her character from College of Wizardry was stronger and carried the strength with her in order to meet the father and then kill the demons.

Megan: Yeah. Exactly. In the description, it says… is it [pronounced] “Veer-a” or “Vair-a”?

Tonislav: It’s “Vair-a” (V-E-E-R-A). It’s “Vair-a” in Finland. But “Veer-a,” I guess.

[Megan and Tonislav laugh]

Tonislav: But what is nice, she always uses the character “V,” so this is the alter ego.

Megan: Yeah. Well, in the description, obviously, like I said, it said she becomes her own hero, and to me, it felt like it was more of a journey of self-acceptance than self-discovery. Would you agree?

Tonislav: Yes. I would not say that she is discovered. She pretty much knew herself. But accepting, yes. And then at the end, maybe forgiving her father because she needed to go and close that door, but not to go up on him. She didn’t go up on him and say, “You asshole, you ruined my life,” or something like this. She went there to say, “You are what you are,” and to forgive him in order to move on with her own life. So yeah, I would definitely say it is acceptance.

Megan: Yeah, that’s what I thought, but I was making sure I was getting the right message.

[Megan and Tonislav laugh]

Megan: So what is one message that you want viewers of the film to take away when they leave a screening of it?

Tonislav: Well, to me, it was the amazing way of how she dealt by using these games and gaining strength with them. And I think that this is the message to me, that if you need to get stronger or you need to kill your demons, don’t be afraid to face them. Just build up your own strength and just go do it. Because this is the only way to move on with your life.

Megan: Yeah, I agree, for sure. Have you kept in touch with her and her brother? Are they doing well?

Tonislav: Yeah, sure. They’re great. In two weeks, we are having a premiere in [___________], so she’s coming there. And Slala, the other girl, is also coming, so we’re going to have the whole crew there.

Megan: Awesome.

Tonislav: So I was trying to get the brother to go, but for him, it is impossible to travel longer than a few hours. So it’s not easy. But yeah, we’re in touch and of course, I’m pretty much in touch with everyone I’m making films with.

Megan: Well, that’s good to hear. That’s always nice.

Tonislav: They’ve been very good friends. She hasn’t seen the film.

Megan: She hasn’t seen it yet?

Tonislav: This is the deal, also. You see it on the premiere. All my films, I show them at the premiere. So it will be interesting to see how she feels about it. But of course, she trusts me very much. And so far this is my sixth or seventh feature-length film. I usually go the same way, and I don’t show any footage to the people because then they start acting, which is not something I want.

Megan: Yeah. You want it all to be real. Absolutely. So I guess more into some lighthearted questions: So obviously, since I work for a Harry Potter website, I’ve got to bring it up. There are references to Harry Potter in the film. Are you a fan, would you say, of the Harry Potter series?

Tonislav: Well, of course I’ve seen them and I like them, and they more or less also changed my life some. We grew up and always wanted the new one. But more or less, Harry Potter was something in my life too. It’s huge.

Megan: Well, it came out in the ’90s, so it’s a whole giant generation of people…

Tonislav: Yes, exactly. And also, Veera’s first ever LARP was a Harry Potter LARP, she says, in the style of that. So yeah, it’s quite much of generations. And I like that it is brutal; it’s not a children’s movie. It’s as the books are. It’s really rough.

Megan: Yeah, there’s a whole roller coaster of things that happen. [laughs]

Tonislav: Yes, it gets rougher and rougher. And my best friend, he writes fan fiction of Harry Potter. He’s a super crazy Potter fan. He was trying to involve me in some website about fan fiction where all the characters are more adult and they do more adult things. But again, it’s kind of crazy fan fiction.

Megan: Yeah. Well, they kind of did that with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but some people don’t like to acknowledge that. [laughs] Well, is there a certain Hogwarts House that you particularly like? You’re from Bulgaria, right? So you’d be from Durmstrang?

Tonislav: Yes, probably. [laughs] Actually, I was trying to get the guy who was playing [Viktor Krum].

Megan: Stanislav [Ianevski]?

Tonislav: Yes, Stanislav.

Megan: Yeah, I’ve met him. He’s very nice.

Tonislav: Yeah. He lives in Bulgaria and for a film that we’re doing there I was trying to get him, but he’s not looking the same way. He looks very different.

Megan: Yeah. It was almost exactly a year ago, he was at this big Celebration of Harry Potter in Florida that I went to. He’s surprisingly very funny. You wouldn’t think from seeing his character, but as a person, he’s very funny.

Tonislav: Yes, yes. I’ve never met him personally, but we’ve been in the same circles. I live in Sofia.

Megan: Awesome. Well, my last question is what would your dream LARPing adventure be?

Tonislav: I like the College of Wizardry.

Megan: The College of Wizardry? It sounds really cool.

Tonislav: Again, as I said, I’m a Harry Potter fan. I’m not a huge fan but I’m a fan. And there, you could really enjoy it. So I think what I’ve seen, and the best to me would be this kind of LARP. They do it really properly there. It’s a few hundred people, and you have to be really much prepared that there [are many] books and stuff.

Megan: Oh, really?

Tonislav: Yes, because all the characters, they have relationships and fathers, brothers, and all that. So it’s a big game. And when you go back there, you can be in the next class.

Megan: Oh, that’s cool. If I had the money, I would totally do that, but I can’t fly to Poland every year. [laughs]

Tonislav: It is super expensive and it’s far away, yes. But it’s interesting. Don’t you have here LARPs like Harry Potter?

Megan: I guess. I’m from South Dakota, which is a small state and there’s no big city so we have tiny LARP communities, but none of them do Harry Potter stuff. They’re all elves and…

Tonislav: Yeah, they do much medieval stuff here. In America, it’s different. In Scandinavia and Europe, they do the College of Wizardry and magic. It’s more like a quest kind of thing, the LARPs, and here more physical.

Megan: I’ve wanted to get a LARPing group together, but no one seems to want to get on board with it.

[Megan and Tonislav laugh]

Tonislav: Well, maybe when they see our film they will be more excited.

Megan: Yeah, I’ll tell them to watch it.

Tonislav: It was so funny and great, the first Harry Potter LARP. I believe we could have a proper feature-length film on it. It was that good.