YEAR: 2024 / COUNTRY: NORWAY / LANGUAGE: NORWEGIAN / RUN TIME: 104 MIN
Starring: Edward Larkin, Kelsey Ellison, Paul Wild, John Andrew Mclay, Zoe Croft, Elena Pitsiaeli, Sebastian Tjørstad, Thomas Stene-Johansen
Directed(s): Benjamin Ree
Benjamin Ree (The Painter and the Thief, 2020) returns to the Festival with a heartwarming and adventurous journey through the breadth of Mats Steen’s digital life and his profound impact on a community. Thoughtfully beginning with an overview of Mats’ life from the Steens’ perspective, Ree then uncovers and revives Mats’ vibrant cyberself. Narrated entries from Mats’ published blog introduce us to Ibelin, his charismatic World of Warcraft persona. Mats’ personality is revealed in a fuller dimension through reconstructed animated moments from his gameplay and interviews with people who knew him as Ibelin. Mats’ parents’ deepest remorse was the thought of their son never experiencing love and friendships, but Ree offers an endearing and innovative portrait of Mats’ abundant life through World of Warcraft, underscoring how community and soulful relationships can transcend the boundaries of the physical world.
Written By Darren Zakus
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Ibelin tells a truly remarkable story about a young life lost far too soon that will renew your faith in the power of the internet and online communities, that is certain to give your tear ducts a good workout.
Mats Steen was born with a degenerative muscular disease that greatly impacted his life, preventing him from having the same active childhood that so many of us have enjoyed. When he left the world at age 25, his parents and family were left with the impression that he lived a lonely life without friendship outside of his family, merely dedicating numerous hours a day to play computer games. Though, after logging into his computers, to their surprise they discovered that Mats was a prominent member in the online World of Warcraft community with many friends who mourned his loss. With so many documentaries focusing on the dangers of the online community such as catfishing, the dark web and radical recruitment, Ibelin stands out as a refreshing and uplifting documentary that highlights the overwhelming good that can come from human connection online. While physically bound to his wheelchair and unable to move more than his fingers for a significant portion of his life, through his videogames Mats was able to live a full life and experience so much of what makes being a love a remarkable experience and make a large impact on the individuals he knew through his avatar Ibelin, which is impactful to viewers watching this documentary.
The documentary features interviews with Mats’ family and his friends from the World of Warcraft community, both as footage and voice over, and family home videos and footage which are commonplace in documentaries of this kind. But what allows this documentary to stand apart from so many others is the manner in which it is visually told. Using chat histories, gameplay logs and data from World of Warcraft, the animators were able to recreate Mats gameplay within the game, and that is the main visual focus of the film. We follow Mats’ avatar Ibelin on his adventures in the game and meet the avatars of his friends from the game exactly how Mats would have met them. It gives the viewer a realistic insight into how Mats experienced his life through the video game, the way he had his avatar reflect how he was feeling and how his friendships unfolded. With each additional friend that is introduced, we get a better understanding of truly how impactful Mats was as an individual, what he meant to his community, but also his struggle with his ability to feel normal given the many challenges he faced in life and the fact that he knew his body would eventually give up on him. It’s a unique and fitting way to explore Mats life, and this storytelling from the documentary filmmaking team is certain to have audiences tearing up throughout this beautiful documentary.
While there is no denying that watching this documentary about Mats Steen is emotionally challenging knowing how his life was tragically cut short and that he was unable to experience life like so many viewers have, nonetheless, it is a documentary that will fill your heart. By learning as his family did the incredible life that Mats was able to make for himself through online video gaming, the connections he built and the lives he changed, it’s impossible not to be moved to tears by this simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting documentary. Told through World of Warcraft gameplay and interviews with those closest to Mats Steen, Ibelin is a remarkably moving documentary of a life fully lived that captures every human emotion with an honesty through powerful storytelling that is certain to resonate with audiences.