Ibelin (2024)


Ibelin Review

Purchased by Netflix at Sundance, Benjamin Ree’s idiosyncratic documentary combines video games and real life in order to dig up untold stories.

Between fascist propaganda campaigns, harassment campaigns, AI Google results, and the total collapse of digital publishing, it’s hard not to think of the internet as a wasteland. But “Ibelin” is a definitive movie about the positive side of the modern web experience about connections made online.

Directed by Benjamin Ree (of “The Painter and the Thief”), it’s a documentary that marries form with function in gorgeous fashion: It brings Mats Steen a quadriplegic gamer who died at 25 from a degenerative disease back to life through his personal blog and his World of Warcraft campaigns. The result is a multilayered moving picture that also serves as something closer to an epitaph for a bright (if shadowy) young man.

“Ibelin,” courtesy of thoughtfully engineered animation, doesn’t just explore Mats’ complications but also many more years of personal experiences that remained secret until he began dying. Though they believed him to be alone and friendless, various condolences from people all over would eventually convince them otherwise. As it turns out, while playing World of Warcraft on behalf of Ibelin Redwood a beautiful hunk with flowing locks Mats spent countless hours forging meaningful relationships with those he met online.

With almost no other choice but to rebuild several years’ worth of relationships that were kept from his family (let alone himself), Ree makes brilliant use of online text archives and recollections from Mats’ long-distance friends; with the help of multiple World Of Warcraft players and experts, he animates vital moments from his life within the engine of the game.

Before arriving at this novel central premise (which comes after the film has transitioned from being an archival doc into an animated drama), Ree takes us through Mats’ story in a more conventional way: by introducing us to him through the eyes of those who knew him IRL. For here, though it’s hard to believe it was ever anything less, “Ibelin” is initially an immaculately assembled archival documentary, pulling from over two decades of home videos (mostly on VHS and DV tapes). To his parents, Mats’ story was one of tragic insulation their precious baby boy slowly losing one physical ability after another until he could only move his fingers; in their eyes, his final few years were spent turning inward toward a gaming screen day and night.

But when the kid died peacefully at home, they found out that they had been wrong about everything. And Ree re-creates that sensation by filming them mirrored on their laptop screens as they read back through the many essay length emails and even artworks they were sent about their son. It’s one shift in perspective among many that Ree captures with a sense of momentous occasion; another is a rewinding of the archival footage (set to an overwhelming musical crescendo) as though time itself were being turned back before Mats’ story was retold through voice actors and animation; another still comes when we transition from footage of Mats gaming to the world within the game where he runs free and uninhibited four corners of his screen transformed into four dimensions accompanied by heavy piano keys played so hard you can hear their texture.

The movie grows bigger the more Ree seeks to answer who Mats was, whether by focusing the screen on social media posts and game footage designed for cinematic drama or by following the camera physically, ghostly floating above new towns and cities to find Mats’ friends around the world. One part even takes shape as hand-drawn animation a sketch artist well known to Mats draws it giving yet another perspective on the mysterious Ibelin.

Though they didn’t know everything about his situation, online friends spent years forging bonds in their gaming guild that would be tested by interpersonal tensions, including with Mats. He was good at getting fellow guild-members to open up, he affected their lives. It’s tragic: He had trouble opening up himself a story that lets “Ibelin” strip away some of the unpleasantness of living entirely online, behind digital avatars.

But then the movie keeps getting deeper as Ree and his animators continue to dig into each World of Warcraft “character,” and person, with an intensity more typical of therapy than filmmaking. “Ibelin” is whip-smart about weaving together physical and digital worlds, it’s a powerful example of how far movies can go when they mess around with style in service of humanism how you can breathe life into someone’s story when it seems like there are no dimensions left. It’s its own universe; it’s a testament to what happens when moviemaking (and a person’s digital footprint) becomes an immortality that can salve any amount of loss.

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