Tuesday, February 27, 2024

“IBELIN”

THE STORY – Mats Steen, a Norwegian gamer, died of a degenerative muscular disease at the age of 25. His parents mourned what they thought had been a lonely and isolated life, when they started receiving messages from online friends around the world.

THE CAST – Zoe Croft, Kelsey Ellison & Ed Larkin

THE TEAM – Benjamin Ree (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 104 Minutes


Anyone involved in the world of networked gaming knows that beyond the characters and plotline of the game, playing together with a group can create bonds of social friendships. These connections can provide a safe place for even the loneliest gamer, even if those relationships rarely extend beyond the game’s borders. What filmmaker Benjamin Ree has discovered in his remarkable new documentary “Ibelin” is an instance when that border was crossed, prompting an international outpouring of affection toward one such gamer, a young Norwegian named Mats Steen.

“Ibelin,” which won the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, would, at first glance, seem to be a tragic story, one in which Mats suffers from a rare disease called Duchenne, a condition that gradually makes the muscles weaker until they can no longer function. The disease, which afflicts only boys, has no cure, so Mats’ family is forced to watch their child wither away toward death for over a quarter of a century, a nightmare that nearly broke their spirits. Ree reconstructs those years of Mats’ early life through the family’s home movies, which show him to be an exuberant toddler despite repeatedly falling down, and even as his condition worsens, he still displays an enormous desire to be a normal kid.

When Mats becomes confined to a wheelchair, however, his concerned parents, Robert and Trude, notice a change in attitude. In an attempt to bolster his spirits, they encourage him to get into gaming, a pastime he can enjoy from his wheelchair. Once he finds World of Warcraft, Mats is hooked, but his obsession with the game begins to shrink his world, and his parents worry that he will never have the opportunity to experience friendship and know love.

Mats dies peacefully at the age of 25, but not before leaving his parents one final gift: his password. Wanting to acknowledge Mats’s death, Robert, Trude, and Mats’ sister Mia go online to send an obituary out to the world and those who gamed with him. Within hours, the Steens were flooded with e-mails and condolence messages from people from across Europe for whom playing with Mats touched their lives. The little boy that his family thought was living a lonely life actually lived a rich and full existence with many others, all within the confines of a computer screen.

To this point, Ree has taken a moving, if conventional, approach to the material, with Mats’ story told solely from his family’s point of view. But when he gets access to over 42,000 pages of online text containing dialogue, events, and online diaries transcribed by Mats and his World of Warcraft friends, he shifts the film’s point of view to the other gamers as well, with their memories of how Mats playing alongside them affected their lives.

Yet getting to know the real Mats remains elusive until Ree boldly brings in artists and voice actors to take that online script and recreate Mats’ World of Warcraft stories in the animated style of the video game. Suddenly, we hear the gamer’s own words brought to life as Ree merges his documentary with Mats’s World of Warcraft narrative. In a thrilling transition, Ree takes a black-and-white clip of the real-life Mats playing the game and zooms into the action onscreen, suddenly bursting into bright animated colors (The shot evokes the same kind of awe not unlike when Dorothy opens the door to a colorful world of Oz).

We follow Mats’ online avatar, hunky detective Ibelin Redwood, as he builds relationships with other characters in the game’s fantasy world and witness, acted out in real-time, the kind of empathy that other gamers have repeatedly said about Mats. Within the engine of the game, Mats, through Ibelin, is able to express his own doubts and fears to other gamers’ characters, just as they are consoled by Mats/Ibelin’s warm friendship. In so doing, Mats was able to create strong emotional relationships that had remained entirely hidden from his family.

Just as Mats could balance his real-life world in his family with the online world of friends he created, so does Ree merge the non-fiction narrative of his documentary with the richly colorful fictional life of his subject. It’s a very tricky balance that Ree pulls off with enormous skill, so much so that, as we become more invested in the story of Ibelin that Mats has created, the documentary around it gathers a more powerfully emotional weight as well.

By the final moments of “Ibelin,” we have at last come to know the complex inner life of a remarkable young man, delivered with an emotional kick that only film can provide. Rees has created a unique film that uses an engrossing scripted drama to illuminate its subject within a moving and innovative documentary by turning the rulebook of non-fiction storytelling on its head.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - This moving and innovative documentary profiles a young Norwegian gamer whose death at 25 prompted an international outpouring of affection. What seemed to his parents to be a lonely, isolated life at a keyboard was, in reality, a richly complex online set of friendships, which the film depicts by animating the gamers' characters and storylines in World of Warcraft-style fashion.

THE BAD - With the film's first half focused on the family's loss, the mood comes dangerously close to becoming a tearjerker at times.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Documentary Feature

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Tom O'Brien
Tom O'Brienhttps://nextbestpicture.com
Palm Springs Blogger and Awards lover. Editor at Exact Change & contributing writer for Gold Derby.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>This moving and innovative documentary profiles a young Norwegian gamer whose death at 25 prompted an international outpouring of affection. What seemed to his parents to be a lonely, isolated life at a keyboard was, in reality, a richly complex online set of friendships, which the film depicts by animating the gamers' characters and storylines in World of Warcraft-style fashion.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>With the film's first half focused on the family's loss, the mood comes dangerously close to becoming a tearjerker at times.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-documentary-feature/">Best Documentary Feature</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"IBELIN"