by Marta Bałaga
- Benjamin Ree's Göteborg and Sundance winner is uplifting and joyful, and might become one of the year’s biggest crowd-pleasers
It’s easy to imagine so many viewers approaching Ibelin [+see also:
interview: Benjamin Ree
film profile] with caution, afraid of yet another heart-wrenching experience that documentaries are so keen to deliver. And yet Benjamin Ree’s film – already awarded at Sundance (see the news) and, more recently, Göteborg – is uplifting and joyful.
For a while, it’s even hard to say why: after all, it starts with a funeral. Mats Steen, diagnosed with a degenerative muscular disease, passes away at 25. His family is crushed: they have lost a child, but they are also convinced that life just cruelly passed him by. But they realise, once they’ve shared the news on his blog, that he actually lived, and loved, online. And there are people out there who are grateful that they got to meet him.
Ree’s decision to literally abandon this world after a pretty straightforward beginning and jump right into the role-playing game World of Warcraft is, well, brilliant – there would really be no other way to understand Mats’ community and the freedom it provided him with. As the doc transforms into full-on animation, recreated according to online archives, you don’t just get a glimpse of an alternative existence; the immersion is complete. For the first time, Mats – known as nobleman “Ibelin”, a tree trunk of a man with an impressive ponytail – wasn’t confined: he was free to run around, flirt and dish out advice.
Reaching out to his virtual friends, Ree is actually making the case that these connections were real. Or at least real-ish – although important and in some cases even life-altering, Mats’ conversations with them were honest up to a point. It’s easy to see why. He finally found a place where he could be someone else, where he could be “normal”, so why shatter the illusion? Why risk rejection by opening up completely? Why not stick to the fantasy, chasing monsters and chatting up pretty girls? This might be the single most crushing part of the story and one that’s surprisingly universal: do I want people to admire me, or do I want them to know me?
In Saltburn [+see also:
film profile], for example, the fear of being exposed leads to all sorts of ungodly acts. In Ibelin, it’s something one needs to overcome in order to truly grow up. There are instances here when it becomes obvious that the bonds forged in the game could become even stronger, but that’s when Mats draws the line. Talk about surprise: amidst all the cries warning people – especially teens – against a further dive into the online world, this film does just that and emerges valuing honesty above all else.
Also when it comes to its protagonist, who can go from a wise man helping mother and son fix their relationship to a hurt kid, so afraid of rejection that he would rather reject people first. Ree calls his film a “coming-of-age story”, and he’s not wrong: Mats makes mistakes, and he learns from them, just like everyone else. He just does it all within the confines of his room.
There is an interesting conversation that is coming up following this premiere – chances are, even though Mats’ situation was obviously very specific, the gaming communities will feel vindicated. When you sit alone at home, it doesn’t mean you are lonely. When you are online, it doesn’t mean that what you experience isn’t real, apparently. Understandably snapped up by Netflix just days into Sundance, Ibelin is a master class in how to tell difficult stories and still make them audience-friendly. Nobody’s denying the pain portrayed here, but don’t trust that grief-heavy synopsis: it’s barely February, and Ree has already made one of the year’s biggest crowd-pleasers.
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