“Before our son Mats died, he left us his password,” the Norwegian gamer’s parent says in the opening of “Ibelin,” Benjamin Ree’s new Sundance documentary. “We believe that was intentional.”
And from those fateful words the life of Mats Steen, an ill-fated young man who died at age 25 from Duchenne muscular dystrophy in 2014, starts to play out before us. In the eyes of his family, Mats’ life was one of isolation, loneliness and longing. The disease eating away at his muscle tissue and robbing him of a healthy man’s strength eventually left him in wheelchair and reliant on feeding tubes. He didn’t have any school friends. In any other situation, Mats’ parents may have been right.
But then they decided to do something with that password, drafting a post for Mats’ blog, originally home to his musings on life as a disabled man. They thought they were posting into the void, letting some dark nothingness know that their son would never log on again.
But despite that feeling they left their email, should anyone want to share in their grief. They were gobsmacked to learn that people all over Europe wanted to do just that. And that’s when Mats’ prolific life within World of Warcraft came into view.
Ree’s magnificent documentary takes its audience not only through the tragic elements of Mats’ life—the diagnosis of his illness, his decline, his untimely death—but the good parts, too, through effective testimony and powerful archival images, audio and video. Mats was well-known within the expansive gaming world of WoW as Ibelin, a burly and handsome private investigator who would strike up a conversation with anyone he met.
Naturally, the talking head discussions of this double life are wonderful, giving us the expansive emotional perspectives of not only his unaware family but also several of those many friends with whom he spent nearly nine years gaming and connecting with. We are shown the scope of his kindness and support for others, as well as the flare-ups of his own personal demons, through their—and his own—words, and it’s easy to feel the weight these connections and introspections have on the finality of Mats’ life.
Ree’s film takes this all a step further by incorporating accurately recreated gameplay that sets the scene for these life-altering interactions between strangers-turned-comrades. It’s a beautifully immersive choice that isn’t necessarily the most visually pleasing out there, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s real and true, and it brings the audience that much closer to Mats, fulfilling a wish it is impossible to not find yourself making throughout the film’s runtime.
Through some interpersonal hiccups and conflicts over those nine years—which are wonderfully cinematic in the way Ree frames and places them within his animated version of Mats’ narrative—we are able to experience Mats as a fully-fledged person of complex thought and emotion, traits of his that sadly took a backseat to his visible illness in his public life.
Within these glimpses, Ree uncovers and spotlights the core of Mats’ particularly gentle compassion, as well as his understandable yearning for a normal life. One member of his WoW guild, Starlight, revealed in the doc how Mats would spend his first hour online everyday running the same route through the streets and forests of Azeroth, the game’s expansive setting.
“Guess I’m trying to run away from the one thing I can never escape,” Mats wrote on his blog at a low point in his illness. These insights are deeply effective, shaping Mats in our eyes as someone we wish we could’ve called a friend. Through tight, purposeful direction and editing that shares the same sensibilities, Ree carves out a riveting structure that gets to the core of what we all want in life: to matter to others and leave a lasting memory. Add in a touching and gorgeous score and a gut-punch of an ending that only real life can give, and the film comes together as a definitive portrait of humanity at its most genuine and pure of heart.
Film can be at its most effective as a medium when it delves into the elements of life that expose us to great pain, and documentary work can sometimes be the best way to achieve this kind of emotional kinship with an audience. “Ibelin” proves that notion to be true in a stunning work of art that brings you into the inner fold the same way Mats did with his gaming confidantes.
“Despite his challenges, he still had the strength to be there for us,” one of Mats’ guild friends said of his deep capacity for empathy. Through films as touching and powerful as these, there is hope we can continue on our own journeys following a truly selfless example. Long live Mats, and long live Ibelin.
“Ibelin” is a sale title.
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