Sundance Review: ‘Ibelin’

Online Community And Disability Meet In Benjamin Ree's Heartbreaking And Heartfelt Documentary

If you are part of any online community, you know about the power of the internet. Whether your platform is Tumblr, Discord, Xbox, or some other online game, these platforms have the singular power of connecting people of similar interests together quickly.

This idea is explored in Benjamin Ree’s latest documentary Ibelin. The breakout director of 2020’s The Painter and The Thief, the documentarian is becoming known for his prolific work looking at the lives of everyday normal people. This is no exception with his latest work looking at Mats Steen.

An everyday Norwegian kid, we learn through talking head interviews with his parents and sister, that he was diagnosed young with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a severe genetic disorder that took Steen, mobility, voice, and life. Like most teenagers, he found solace in the internet, more specifically playing collaborative video games like World of Warcraft. Sometimes he would spend over twelve hours a day playing. 

Mats’ father says that when Mats passed, he believes he deliberately left his computer password out for his parents to find. When they unlocked it, they discovered his blog and quickly wrote an obituary on it for readers to find. Unexpectedly, the family received hundreds of emails from people all over Europe sending their condolences and mourning with them, leading the family to wonder about what kind of life their son lived online. 

This question is at the heart of Benjamin Ree’s film. Using those emails, a server with thousands upon thousands of hours and over 40,000 pages logged with Warcraft history, the documentarian can reenact and trace Mats’ online life. With the help of the game’s animators, they show how he was in the game, how he liked helping others, and – eventually – how his illness made his way into his online world despite his wishes against it. 

Ibelin is not just a love letter to online communities but a portal to how Mats saw himself. Very rarely do we get disability representation like this that doesn’t celebrate the individual. We see Mats cut people out and be rude to those he disagrees with. He could be a womanizer online and it sounds like there were a few members of his guild that thought he could be an asshole. What Ree is great at showing in his work is someone as their full and true selves. He doesn’t demonize Mats and instead shows him through a light of empathy that is extremely moving. 

While the World of Warcraft animation is a good idea, Ree over-relies on it, especially in emotional moments. In Ibelin’s final act, you still have the voiceover given to him from those talking-head interviews. More cuts back to the real world, lingering there instead of in the uncanny valley, would have packed a more significant emotional punch. 

We eventually learn that Ibelin was the name of Mats’ avatar. He was buff, had a ponytail and a mustache, and liked to solve mysteries. The real Mats loved games and eating outside of his G-tube and had very complicated feelings about his situation. Ree marries these two figures in Ibelin, telling the remarkable story of an online community and an ordinary young man. 

Netflix picked up Ibelin and will release it later this year.

Cortland Jacoby
A D.C area native, Cortland has been interested in media since birth. Taking film classes in high school and watching the classics with family instilled a love of film in Cortland’s formative years. Before graduating with a degree in English and minoring in Film Study from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, Cortland ran the college’s radio station, where she frequently reviewed films on air. She then wrote for another D.C area publication before landing at Punch Drunk Critics. Aside from writing and interviewing, she enjoys podcasts, knitting, and talking about representation in media.
sundance-review-ibelinA physically disabled young man's online life is examined by Benjamin Ree in his followup to 'The Painter and The Thief'