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SUNDANCE 2024 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Benjamin Ree • Director of Ibelin

“I wanted people to know the gaming world can be inclusive”


- The Norwegian director enters the virtual world and finds real emotions there

Benjamin Ree • Director of Ibelin
(© Kristoffer Kumar)

In the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition entry Ibelin [+see also:
film review
interview: Benjamin Ree
film profile
, named after his protagonist’s World of Warcraft persona, Norway’s Benjamin Ree reconstructs the online existence of the late Mats Steen, suffering from degenerative muscular disease. He ends up with a film that’s not about death; rather, it’s about friendship, love and life.

Cineuropa: The way you shot this film seems like the only option, but it can’t have been easy.
Benjamin Ree:
We were editing for two years. We have a film within a film, and at first, the viewers weren’t that invested in the animated part. They didn’t care about “Ibelin” – they cared about Mats. To make these transitions work, we had to charge all the scenes with his questions and goals. We get to know him through his blog and a voiceover read by an actor, and then you hear it also in that avatar life. It’s almost as if he took the audience’s hand. We see him trying to find friends and love there, and it’s so relatable. But we don’t just meet his friends; we meet their avatars, and they don’t even look similar. That posed another challenge because you had to be able to recognise them immediately.

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Did any of them object to your idea of using real gaming dialogue? When you play for such a long time, you don’t expect anyone to read it one day.
These transcriptions from gaming role-play were on a public forum. It was helpful because it was public information, but then it collapsed. Which, in a way, was lucky, as it reduced the amount of it. I picked these lines from 4,000 pages. It gives you a sense of a life lived online. I gradually noticed it was a coming-of-age story. Mats was growing up and making mistakes. He helped many people, but nobody is perfect all the time. There were conflicts. I asked Mats’ friends for permission, and they said yes to everything. The only person I couldn’t ask was Mats himself: he passed away in 2014. He kept his illness a secret, but towards the end, he started opening up in his blog; he was in a doc about specialised equipment. I don’t think I could have made this film without him making these choices. He wanted to be remembered.

His parents say: “We discovered this online life we knew nothing about.” You assume it’s something horrific, but instead, you come in with a massive surprise.
I don’t have any statistics for this, but my feeling is that 99% of media coverage about gaming has been negative. My goal was to make this film understandable, even to my grandmother, and for all the gamers and World of Warcraft players to recognise it. We show this other side, too: your online friends don’t know everything about you. But I wanted people to know this world can be inclusive.

In a way, you can understand his secrecy. If you lived with a debilitating illness and you could forget about it for one second, why wouldn’t you? The same goes for his friends, but you ask them to revisit some traumas.
Fortunately, in 2019, there was an article about Mats. So many of them participated, and it was a positive experience. Also, people just want to be understood. They want to tell their story. It was painful but hopefully also rewarding, talking about what they experienced inside of this game.

I see your film as a crowd-pleaser, which is shocking, considering its subject matter. Were you surprised by its warmth?
It’s an interesting perspective: how does a film about a young man dying from a rare disease become hopeful? At one point, Mats was as sick as you can get. He was in an enormous amount of pain. And there he is, moving only his fingers, helping people around Europe. He is changing lives! It says something about how important it was that he got the help he got. My first thought was: “He didn’t work, so he had time for friends.” But I was wrong. He didn’t have the energy for it, but he still chose to prioritise them, to ask how they were doing and listen. I am not good at that, personally. It was one of the things I learnt from him.

I was born the same week as Mats, and we played together as kids. When I watched his family’s tapes, I was there, too. I also got these games for my birthday. This film is hopeful also because his parents go from thinking he lived an isolated life to realising he actually experienced all these things. We can help people, who have never played, understand what it’s like to be part of such a community.

It’s true – Ibelin could kick-start a discussion about what constitutes a “real” experience.
Here, at Sundance, Mats’ family is at every screening. His dad saw it “between 50 and 60 times”, he says. It was important for their healing process, but I also wanted to ask: “Is it possible to be friends with someone you have never met? What does it mean to grow up in a game?” This film is honouring the gaming community, and at least to my knowledge, it’s the first time anyone has recreated this avatar life. I hope it will be done many times in the future.

A still from Ibelin
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