Fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmaking has been around for a while. Yet, when Michal Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights was released back in 2016, many rushed to accuse it of being something different than what it said it was, a non-documentary of a sorts. Devoid of any acknowledgement of a camera being present, and refining its aesthetics to the point where we can no longer tell where the real ends and the staged begins, Marzak’s film offers an insight into the life of a couple of young friends in Warsaw. It is a touching portrait of youth at its most most beautiful, ecstatic and confused. How much of it is staged is non-important, as the film pulsates in the rhythm of truth.
Since 2016, it seems that audiences have learnt to tolerate such observational aesthetics, and one of last year’s finest documentaries Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2019) received wide acclaim and an Oscar nomination. Followed by it was Tonislav Hristov’s The Magic Life of V (2019), which, only three months into the year, has attracted major film festivals such as Sundance, Berlinale, and CPX:DOX.
The film follows the life of a young Finnish woman named Veera. Haunted by childhood trauma and the needs of her mentally ill brother Ville, Veera turns to escapism in the form of LARPing. Very similar to acting or cosplay, LARP immerses the players in a completely fictional world, urging them to think, act, feel, and ultimately, be the characters they portray. In LARP, players take objects of reality and transform their meaning and purpose to serve the fictional world.
Veera travels around the world to participate in different LARP (Live Action Role-Play) games – she goes to Poland to immerse herself in the Harry Potter universe, and then sets off to Bulgaria to fight some monsters in what seems like a fictional zombie apocalypse. It is in the very first scene in the film that Veera introduces us to one of her characters, V. – compassionate, friendly, and always happy, in Veera’s own words. Veera herself does not seem to have many friends, and happiness escapes her. During a game in Bulgaria, she meets a woman named Slava, and the two soon become close friends. The relationship between them, however, seems almost the same as Veera’s relationship to her therapist, and is one of the moments that indicate the film’s biggest issue.
From its very title, The Magic Life of V prepares us for a subjective experience, yet it feels too disconnected to its own world. Vera barely seems interested in the lives of others – her friend, her mother, and her brother remaining closed books throughout. The motivations of her own character remain somehow unclear. We know she is haunted by the memories of her violent and alcoholic father, but she seems disconnected even from them. She says she finds salvation in the escapist reality of roleplay, yet, almost as if reality always prevails, we never see her invested in her roles, and she eventually finds a confidante to sit aside with and talk to out of character. In the end, Veera seems disconnected from both her magic and her real life.
The film plays with ideas of reality and imagination, both in its style and subject matter. Each shot is a beautifully composed image in a documentary, yet controlled environment. Stylistically, The Magic Life of V is one of those magic docs that open our eyes to the flexibility and possibilities of documentary cinema. Unfortunately, it is exactly because this film’s environment is so evidently controlled that a lack of three-dimensionality is hardly forgivable.