‘Ibelin’ Review: A Shattering Documentary About a Gamer’s Secret Life

Between fascist propaganda, harassment campaigns, AI-generated Google results, and the collapse of digital publishing, it’s hard not to think of the internet as a wasteland. “Ibelin,” however, is a defining film about the positive side of the modern web experience, and connections forged online.

Directed by “The Painter and the Thief” helmer Benjamin Ree, the documentary marries form with function in stunning fashion, bringing to life the sprawling digital identity of its subject Mats Steen — a quadriplegic gamer who died at 25 from a degenerative disease — via his personal blog and his World of Warcraft campaigns. The resultant film is a moving, multifaceted masterwork that doubles as a cinematic epitaph to a vibrant (if secretive) young man.

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Using thoughtfully engineered animation, “Ibelin” explores not only Mats’ complications, but a lifetime of personal experiences that remained a secret from his parents until they began grieving him. Though they believed him to be isolated and lonely, dozens of surprising condolences from people around the world would convince them otherwise. Mats, it turns out, had spent his numerous hours online cultivating meaningful connections in the guise of Ibelin Redwood, his handsome hunk of a World of Warcraft character.

In an effort to re-assemble several years’ of relationships that had remained hidden from his family, Ree makes ingenious use of online text archives and recollections from Mats’ long-distance friends and, with the help of numerous World of Warcraft players and experts, animates a digital retelling of vital moments from his life within the engine of the game.

Prior to arriving at this unique core premise, Ree takes a more straightforward approach, however, introducing us to Mats through the eyes of those who knew him in person. Before the film becomes an aesthetically forward-thinking animated drama, it takes the form of a meticulous archival documentary, pulling from more than two decades of home videos, mostly on VHS and DV tapes. To his parents, Mats’ story was one of tragic insulation, as their beloved baby boy slowly lost one physical ability at a time, until he could only move his fingers. In their eyes, his last few years were spent turning inward, away from other people, and toward a gaming screen day and night.

Upon his peaceful passing, they had their perspective radically altered by strangers who knew him intimately, a sensation Ree re-creates by filming Mats’ parents and sister mirrored on their laptop screens, reflected within the many essay-length emails and even artworks they were sent. This shift in POV is just one 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 re-telling Mats’ story through voice actors and animation. Yet another arrives in the form of a transition from footage of Mats gaming to the world within the game, in which he runs free and uninhibited, transforming the four corners of his screen into a four-dimensional world, accompanied by heavy piano keys played with such passion and verve that you can hear their texture and physical movements.

The further Ree reaches in his attempts to answer the question of who Mats was, the more enormous the movie feels, whether the screen is focused on social media posts and game footage designed with an eye for cinematic drama, or whether the camera travels physically, in ghostly fashion, floating up above new towns and cities in order to track down Mats’ friends around the world. One section, involving a sketch artist Mats knew well, even unfolds in the form of hand-drawn animation, bringing to life yet another perspective on the mysterious Ibelin.

Although his online friends didn’t know the full extent of his predicament, they spent years forging unbreakable bonds in their gaming guild, though these would eventually be tested by interpersonal tensions, including with Mats. A friendly and helpful person at heart, he got many fellow guild-members to open up, and he had a tangible impact on their lives. In a tragic bit of irony, he had trouble opening up himself, a story which allows “Ibelin” to peel back some of the unpleasant layers of a life lived entirely online, behind digital avatars.

And yet, the movie deepens in unexpected ways, as Ree and his animators continue to mine the rigorous personal depths of each World of Warcraft “character” and the people behind them. With whip-smart filmmaking that weaves together the physical and digital worlds, “Ibelin” is powerful cinema that uses its stylistic experimentation for distinctly humanist means, breathing life into a person’s story when it seemed like there were few dimensions left to explore. It’s a world unto itself, and a glowing example of how moviemaking — like a person’s digital footprint — can be a form of immortality that soothes even the most devastating loss.

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