In Sundance documentary 'The Magic Life of V,' a girl confronts her history of abuse through LARPing.
"What demon are you releasing today?" asks a professor of Witchcraft and Wizardry to his disciples, who huddle around him in a circle. The students, cloaked in Hogwarts garb, share openly—except for one young girl, Veera. When prompted by the professor, Veera says she plans to let go of a childhood memory, but she won't say what it is.
That's the first glimpse we get of how Veera uses Live-Action Role-Playing (LARPing) to cope with her trauma. Tonislav Hristov's stunning documentary The Magic Life of V, which premiered at Sundance this year, follows Veera over the course of five years as she slowly excavates memories of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, an alcoholic with whom she has been estranged for 15 years. Between dueling demons at Hogwarts and shooting mutants in an abandoned post-apocalyptic bunker, Veera confronts her past in therapy and in conversations with her mother and brother. Throughout the film, she weighs the prospect of arranging a meeting with her father as a final step in her recovery process.
Shot with the intentional, cinematic framing of a narrative film, The Magic Life of V is a rare inside look into one young woman's psychological healing. No Film School sat down with Hristov and cinematographer Alexander Stanishev to discuss the film's anti-cinéma vérité cinematography, how Hristov was able to gain access to his subject's most intimate moments, and more.
No Film School: How did you first meet Veera?
Tonislav Hristov: I met her at the premiere of another documentary I made. She was a friend of one of the characters. Because the film had an element of gaming, I asked her if she was a gamer herself, and she said, "Yeah, but not really on the computer. Doing LARPing." I was like, "What is LARPing?" And she explained, Live Action Role Playing, where you have a character and everything. So I get really excited about the LARPing part, and slowly we became better friends. At one point I asked why she had been doing this for the last 15 years. Is there something more to it? And then I started going into her personal story, and this is how it all started. About six years ago.
NFS: You became friends before you filmed her. What was that process like?
Hristov: She was my very good friend. We hung out. We went out together, and slowly I got more and more interested in her personal story. I didn't know the whole story. But I knew that there was a dark side. She didn't, of course, talk so much about it at the beginning, but later on, she started trusting me.
Hristov: I realized that for her, at the moment we met, the biggest problem was that her brother was going into the [cycle of abuse and addiction]. He was meeting her father, and then they would drink together. Veera didn't like that and she wanted to stop it. She found a way to deal with her own path, but she was scared that the brother would go in the same loop. This was her motivation for going on this journey.
"Convincing people that you have a story that is worth telling is always the hardest. Even though it's my sixth feature doc, I still start from scratch every time."
NFS: At what point did you decide you wanted to make this documentary about her?
Hristov: We started developing the film and we began filming, but it was quite hard to get finances on board. To convince people that you have a story that is worth telling is always the hardest. And even though it's my sixth feature-length documentary, I still start from scratch every time.
NFS: How did you finally find financing?
Hristov: Government funds. I am a Finland-based filmmaker, so first we went to Finnish Public Television, and then we went to the Finnish Film Fund. And then after that, since I'm Bulgarian, we went to the Bulgarian Film Fund. Then, Scandinavian funds. And so on.
NFS: In the Q&A, you talked about how you didn't shoot everything. You were very selective about what you shot. How did you decide what you were going to shoot?
Hristov: Well, for example, I didn't know that Ville [Veera's brother] had been harming himself. And then we were just there in their home filming them together, just doing some family stuff, and someone mentioned, "But look Ville's hand." So I asked Veera if they can talk about this.
Some things just happened on the spot. Some things, of course, we were preparing for beforehand, like meeting the father. We traveled very far away. 10 hours. And we were still not sure if he would allow us to film, because just the day before that, he had said he didn't want to meet with Veera anymore.
NFS: You seem to have gotten incredible access from everyone in Veera's life, including her father, to participate in the film. How did you do that?
Hristov: I guess he saw it was important for Veera. And, as he said in the film, he felt guilty for what happened when the children were small. So he allowed Veera to have her closure, or whatever she was looking for. If it was with the camera, then it was with the camera.
NFS: You also mentioned on the Q&A that sometimes Veera used the camera as a reason to tell her story.
Hristov: Yeah. She had not talked to her mom, ever, about what happened. So the camera was a trigger for her to ask these questions.
NFS: Was it difficult for you to toe the line between documentarian and friend? Because sometimes friends can step into more of a supportive, therapist role.
Hristov: To me, everything is about trust. As I mentioned, I'm really friends with all the people I make documentaries about, so it's all a big family. To me, there is no difference between a documentary subject and a friend. I have made documentaries with some of my best friends. I have also made them about myself.
NFS: So you know what it's like to be the subject?
Hristov: Yeah. Many people do their first documentaries about themselves, or they do a very personal story. So I know what it is to be the main character in a story. You have to be really careful that you don't harm people.
NFS: What kind of steps do you take to be careful that you don't harm your subjects?
Hristov: Well, if the person doesn't feel comfortable saying something, then I don't push it. It's most important that trust is not broken. Veera only talked about things that she was comfortable with. I'm sure there were other things that she didn't want to talk about, so we didn't push that. I never asked her.
"To me, there is no difference between a documentary subject and a friend."
NFS: The cinematography was stunning, and seemed very deliberately shot. There wasn't a lot of scrambling to get the shot. How intentional was it?
Alexander Stanishev: We started filming five years ago. The first four shooting days, we experimented with a lot of different approaches. Then we sat down and watched the material and decided which things worked, which didn't. The first four days didn't work at all.
Hristov: It was so much of everything.
Stanishev: We were all over the place stylistically. Then, after discussions, we went to more minimal camera work--more intimate, using less light. To make it more real and poetic at the same time.
NFS: What about shooting the LARPing scenes? I'm sure that there were many unpredictable elements there.
Stanishev: The two LARPs were just non-stop shooting. The camera was on all the time. Especially the nighttime in Bulgaria, we had to push the limits of the camera to the maximum. We were just following them for hours.
Hristov: The LARPs were, I think, the most unpredictable, as you said. We didn't really know what was happening. After the Polish LARPing, we got a second camera crew for Bulgarian LARPing. We just followed what was happening there without knowing much.
For both LARPs, we had to be part of the game--we had to be in character so we didn't ruin it for the others. So yeah, it wasn't easy filming the LARPs. But they're extremely cinematically important. Of course, the visuals are really cool, but also the people that are there are living this life. So it's very exciting.
NFS: Veera's friend says in the film that she had a very similar experience in terms of trying to face her demons through LARPing. Was this something you saw to be pretty common with the more people that you talked to in that world?
Hristov: Many people were dealing with their own issues. They go there to explore sides of themselves they are not sure about—personal, sexual, all kinds of things. Because you are not yourself there. You are a character that you have written. You can [decide] what you want to be. You can try things.
"I try to make every frame as good as a still photograph."
NFS: Going back to the cinematography, Alexander, can you talk a bit more about your process?
Stanishev: I don't like this style of cinéma vérité shooting. Well, I'm not just pointing the camera and shooting. I try to make every frame as good as a still photograph. Veera made it easy. She is a really charismatic person, and however we shot her, she was always really filling the frame.
NFS: What did your crew look like?
Stanishev: It was focus puller, second assistant, and then a lighting guy. We used lights for some parts. Then we gradually lit less and less and less.
NFS: How did you decide on the camera and the lenses?
Stanishev: It was mostly improvisation. I decided that I wanted to use a wide-angle lens close to her all the time so I could move easily and have better framing. We shot on an Alexa Mini with high-speed lenses and master primes
NFS: For each of you, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced making this film?
Hristov: When it's a space that I can direct and control, I feel much more comfortable. But when I went into the LARPing games...we were just all over the place. We didn't know what was happening. That's a really scary situation for me as a director because I don't know if we had everything we needed filmed. And as Alexander mentioned, we were a big crew, so it was quite expensive to be there. There were over 500 gamers there. We wanted to have a feeling of the place but also not lose Veera.
Stanishev: For me, the biggest challenge was meeting Veera's father. Because we didn't know how he would react, I was there alone so that we didn't scare him. So I was just there with Veera and the camera, pulling my own focus. It was minus degrees outside. I was there for one hour, filming without stopping, and barely seeing what I'm filming because the camera got so fogged from the temperature. It was a real struggle for me to catch what was happening, especially since I don't speak Finnish. With one eye I was looking at the father, and one eye was looking at framing, and constantly moving around. Tonislav edited the scene very well.
NFS: Tonislav, you edited the film?
Hristov: I usually do the rough cuts myself, and the editor comes in and does the structure. And then I do the last cut. So in the middle, we get a professional editor.
And then I have some other people helping me. I have a story editor called Anne Fabini. She's the editor of Of Fathers and Sons and Return to Homes. She's brilliant.
NFS: Since you filmed over the course of five years, I'm sure you had time in between shoots to edit. Would you look at the footage and figure out what you needed next time?
Hristov: Yes. The film was shot in under 20 shooting days.
Of course, we would see what was happening with Veera's life, and how it works with the story. I had to edit things all the time for financiers for them to see that we're moving forward. Because as I said at the beginning, it was not easy to find funding for this film. They wanted to see where we are going with it.
In America, many of documentaries work exactly that way—you work and you show, and you work and you show. And then financiers come on board. But in Europe, usually, it goes the other way around. You first collect the funding, and then you shoot the whole film.
NFS: How did you work with your producers?
Hristov: [Kaarle Aho ] is a very good friend of mine. He's the godfather of my son, so it's a family, as I said. I like to be surrounded by people I feel really comfortable with. It's all trust in filmmaking. He really trusts me, and I trust him. He has produced all my films since I was in film school. I've never really worked with another independent producer.
"This is what I've learned through the years: if you just keep to yourself in the editing room, what you think is best might actually be wrong."
NFS: And you met in film school where?
Hristov: I graduated in Helsinki. I'm a Bulgarian citizen and a Finnish filmmaker. For me, it works well. I don't think that my films look really much like Bulgarian documentaries. I think the style is more like Scandinavian, I would say.
NFS: What were both of your experiences in film school like?
Hristov: I had a great experience. Really good teachers. For example one of the tutors I had there was Pirjo Honkasalo, maybe the best Finnish documentary director. She was my mentor and is still someone I look up to. The first documentary I shot was with my cinematography professor. So it's really nice, in Finland, that you actually become friends with your professors. And they follow up with you. So I had very good experience.
Stanishev: My experience, in Bulgaria, was a little bit different. Most of the things I learned in film school I learned from shooting short movies. Especially with one guy, one director, who is a Finnish guy also. He's the reason that I met Tonislav, because he invited me to Finland to teach. But anyway, I learned the most of everything on set. We did six, seven short films with him during film school. We made a lot of mistakes, so this is how I learned.
NFS: Is there anything that you both learned from doing this film in particular?
Stanishev: I learned to be more slow with the camera. Because when I am shooting commercials, everything is on the screen for three seconds. Or when you shoot a feature, you can repeat it. But in a documentary, you cannot repeat anything. So I had to be more patient with the camera.
Hristov: Patient with the camera is nice. What did I learn? With every film of mine, I learn something. Every film enriches you, not only in the tools, but also emotionally.
This film was a really difficult process for me. Maybe the most difficult I have ever had with a film. It was so fragile structure, and then the story is so simple. But then again it's not simple at all. You cannot just say, "Okay, she has a problem, and then she deals with it." The way it developed, the story and [Veera's] life, it was extremely challenging.
NFS: What were some of the things that you did that helped you clarify the structure?
Hristov: Think about it, talked about it. Show it to the people that I trust. As I mentioned, Anne Fabini [the story editor], Kaarle [a producer]. We had some other people who were also watching and giving feedback. That's really important to me. It's about really putting a soul into the story. I think the bottom line is that you have to be open for other people to help you.
In Scandinavia, you have these so-called tutors that sometimes comes on board. They watch a rough cut, and they give feedback. For example, one of the guys also who watched and give nice feedback was Nils Pagh Andersen, the editor of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence.
This is what I've learned through the years: if you just keep to yourself in the editing room, what you think is best might actually be wrong. Open up and show the film to people you trust, and then follow their feedback. The project was also in this editing called [foreign language 00:28:19]. It's opening, and then getting the feedback and understanding what from the feedback actually can work for you.
"It's your job as a cinematographer to know your director's way of working. Then you can give your input."
NFS: If a young filmmaker came to either of you and said, "There's this story I want to tell. It's got a lot of sensitive emotions in it, and I really want to capture it the right way, both for it to be a good film and also to respect the subject," what advice would you give them?
Hristov: Before you start filming, really try to be as close as possible to that person you are filming. Know exactly how they feel about the film. Make them trust you.
Stanishev: My advice would be to mostly talk with the director, and to try to get what his approach is. Because there are so many different ways to shoot a documentary. For example, Tonislav is very specific in his ways. It's your job as a cinematographer to know your director's way of working. Then you can give your input, like lenses, lights, composition, and stuff like that.
Hristov: Oh, that reminds me, another piece of advice for young filmmakers: to give space, also, to the creatives in the film. The cinematographer, then later the composer, editor. You should leave each creative to have their own space. The way I work is that I tell them what I would like to have, but I let them have their own space to create it. Many times something brilliant comes out of the creatives having their own space. Don't push. Each of your crew members can enrich your story.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.