Teenagers Battle Adulthood Anxieties in ‘Fighting Demons With Dragons’

“Mistrivsel” is a Danish word that roughly translates as depression, and its use has proliferated in recent year, especially when talking about young people. Instead of asking why that is, Copenhagen-born director Camilla Magid decided to document how one institution is coming up with alternative remedies for that dark state of mind. “Fighting Demons With Dragons” follows three students at Østerskov Boarding School in Northern Denmark, one of the few places using live action role play (LARP) as an educational method.

“Looking back, almost everything I’ve ever made has always been about the outsider figure,” says Magid, speaking with Variety ahead of the film’s world premiere in Thessaloniki Documentary Festival’s Newcomers Competition. She sees the longing to belong as a universal theme underpinning her previous works, even more politically so in “Land of the Free,” a documentary about former prisoners after their release, which won the Nordic competition at CPH:DOX in 2017. Heidi Elise Christensen of Final Cut for Real serves as producer for these two titles, in addition to her involvement in last year’s Thessaloniki winner, “A House Made of Splinters.” Kerstin Übelacker of We Have a Plan and Lisa Nyed of Film i Skåne co-produce Magid’s latest from the Swedish side.

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While the original plan was to film a single student for one year, “Fighting Demons With Dragons” ended up documenting two years (including lockdown) in the life of three teenagers—Josefine, Ask, and Luca—to avoid overwhelming either one of them alone. As a result, three individual Østerskov journeys expand on an issue of a larger scale. A whole generation of young adults is suffering, but, instead of posing a societal critique, the director wanted to encourage active care, “to look into ourselves and ask: what can we do to help?”

She first witnessed the outcomes of educational role play 10 years ago thanks to a mentee of hers, and now, a decade later, a new generation has grown up under the yoke of “mistrivsel.” According to Magid, “Kids these days stop playing very early and grow up too soon. So, an environment that really celebrates play and imagination is even more valuable. I believe that through imagining that we are somebody else, we can grow as people, and that’s what I see is happening at that school.”

In our social and personal lives, Magid knows, we all take on various roles. But observing role-play as part of an inclusive pedagogical process while taking on the directorial part herself contributed to a more complex understanding of it. She describes it as “an alibi”: “I know I’m playing somebody else and you know it too. Because of this contract between us, I can be whatever I want to be,” she adds. In order to translate this freedom, the crew had to be kept small—the director, with or without a cinematographer—staying for only two or three days at a time.

While minimizing pressure and interference in day-to-day school life, the project had to represent some of the actual LARP sessions. Magid suspected that filming the role-play would be challenging—with a multiplicity of narratives and durations of up to 12 hours—and wanted to focus on what that meant to the protagonists, personally. At the same time, she recognized something particularly cinematic in the process of role-play unfolding, as they “kept being sucked into the narratives nevertheless, a love story here or a fight there would absorb our full attention.” The filmmaker felt a similar pull in the editing room, where a self-made sign read: “Don’t get caught in the rabbit hole.”

Alongside the feature-length documentary, “Fighting Demons With Dragons” is available also as a mini-series, the first episode of which has already aired on Danish primetime TV. Tracing two years in the lives of Josefine, Luca and Ask also meant accompanying them in a period of time riddled with the anxieties of impending adulthood. Magid acknowledges that while having a special connection as a documentarian to your subject is “key,” so was the camera’s presence. “It didn’t feel like a threat because it was there from the get-go. That was the premise, the reason why I was there in the first place, to document them and their stories.” The conversations on screen stand out with their emotional candidness, discussing the experience of being trans, sexual abuse, being neurodivergent. In addition to negotiating how much of their personal journeys the participants wanted (or didn’t want) to share, the Danish director always intended to listen to them first and foremost as she “wanted to tell the story from the students’ point of view, not from the adult’s, from the very beginning.”

The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival runs March 7 – 17.

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