Written by: Hannah Tran | February 12th, 2024
Ibelin (Benjamin Ree, 2024) 4 out of 5 stars
Video games have not always been met with a particularly nuanced gaze in cinema, reflecting the skepticism undoubtedly present in the broader world. In director Benjamin Ree’s latest documentary, however, there emerges a refreshingly compassionate perspective on gaming. Ibelin explores the tale of Mats Steen, a Norwegian gamer who tragically passed away at the age of 25 due to a muscular degenerative disease. His parents were shocked to learn afterwards of the numerous relationships he forged in the role-playing game World of Warcraft. In this story, Ree asks the question of how far we will go to find human connection. The answer is a moving, heart-wrenching, and brilliantly told story that demonstrates the power of technology at its very best.
The title Ibelin derives from the name of Mats’ online character, a strong but sensitive detective. Ibelin shows that the divide between player and character is often screen-thin. In their avatars, players are able to express their true selves and use the game as a conduit for the storm of emotions that rage inside. The interviews with those who knew Mats within the game wonderfully illustrate this as they remember how Mats helped them use the game to relate to one another in a way they were unable to in reality. While it is sad to realize that Mats’ parents were left in the dark about this side of his life, it is beyond touching to see them realize that all of their wishes for Mats, that he might be able to experience love, mistakes, and friendship, actually came true.
The storytelling does an impressive job in its attempt to understand who Mats was. The life he lived on the game is retold using World of Warcraft-style animation with dialogue read by actors from actual transcripts of his conversations on the game. This decision feels so perfect, and it truly brings the viewer into Mats’ world and allows them to see his experience in an accessible and nonjudgmental way. It also never shies away from exploring Mats’ darker moments, when his insecurities and anguish led him to hurt others and make mistakes. This helps paint a fuller picture of him as a person by allowing the viewer to see him grow and defy the mounting odds against him.
The storytelling only falters in its structure, which feels somewhat mechanical and messy. The drawn-out beginning of the film is where this is most apparent, but it is largely resolved by the end. Once it dives into his friendships, it falls into an easy stride. And once the focus returns to his parents, all the emotions culminate into a heartbreaking, poignant end. Despite how tragic its story is, Ibelin departs with a life-affirming message about the limitlessness of human connection. In his quest to understand Mats through the game, Ree (The Painter and the Thief) creates a warm memorial to Mats’ life that is told in the way he experienced it.
[Ibelin just premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Documentary Competition.]