SALT LAKE CITY — “First, it was being actively afraid of dying. Then actively wishing to die.”
Veera Lapinkoski says those words to her therapist in “The Magic Life of V,” a documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week. She’s recalling her childhood, and her abusive alcoholic father whom she hasn’t seen in 15 years. “The Magic Life of V” follows Lapinkoski, a Finnish 20-something, over the course of five years as she addresses her trauma via traditional therapy and LARPing (live-action role-playing).
For the uninitiated: LARPing is when role-playing game participants physically portray the characters they're playing. To most people, it may seem little more than adults dressed in medieval garb, fighting in a park with foam swords on a Saturday afternoon. As “The Magic Life of V” shows, it can be much, much more.
“It’s a new way of discovering more about yourself,” Tonislav Hristov, the film’s director, told the Deseret News before its Saturday screening at the Salt Lake City Public Library. “To me, this is what LARPing is about. You are taken as your character, who you’re scripted to be, and this really gives you so much space to experiment with yourself, with your emotions. And it’s very popular in Scandinavia. It’s like psychotherapy, but you’re not sitting on a couch.”
Hristov and his film crew follow Lapinkoski, who while LARPing goes by the name “V” (pronounced “Vee”), to immersive LARPing excursions in Poland and Bulgaria. At Poland’s Czocha Castle, attendees spend a whole week as aspiring witches and wizards; the stunning castle grounds look like a real-life Hogwarts. In Bulgaria, V attends a guerrilla warfare-style hunt for mutant monsters.
The film is beautifully shot. Most of “The Magic Life of V” is set in Finland during the winter months, and its landscape is stark and snowcapped. Cinematographer Alexander Stanishev effectively captures this vast, icy beauty, with V, herself a captivating figure, at its center. Finland’s winter landscape matches V’s own aura: beautiful, delicate and subtly heartbreaking. LARPing has helped V face her past, but inner turmoil persists. Her older brother, who is mentally disabled, has been getting drunk with their father, whom their mother kicked out years ago.
Hristov, who previously directed the 2016 Sundance hit “The Good Postman,” has lived in Finland for 15 years. In his home country of Bulgaria, Hristov said family interactions are typically loud and emotionally charged. In Finland, it’s the opposite. V’s family hardly says a word. According to Hristov, this relative silence is the norm in Finland, as are struggles with alcoholism.
“It’s really quiet (in Finland), but quiet doesn’t always mean peaceful,” he said.
Audiences see V open up to her therapist, discussing her father’s abuse and her brother’s disability with measured but exposed candor. She’s considering visiting her father, and asking him about his alcoholism. For her, that’s a big leap.Comment on this story
Therapy has helped V face a number of personal demons. As has LARPing. While at the LARPing event in Bulgaria, audiences see V talking with another LARPer. V retells her first LARPing experience, from when she was 11. After her father left, V struggled to speak in public. But during the first time she LARPed, she found she could be someone else — or, perhaps, a braver version of herself. For a traumatized person, that becomes LARPing’s power.
“I was shaking after it so much, because I didn’t know that something like that could come out of me,” V said. “But it didn’t really come out of me, it came out of the character, that was me, but wasn’t me.”