Robert and Trude Steen were astonished that their 25-year-old son Mats had another life after he passed away from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Despite Mats, who used a wheelchair and had few in-person social outings, appearing lonely amidst playing World of Warcraft for about 15,000 hours in his last ten years, his parents soon discovered he was popular in this virtual world. Gamers knew him for his avatar, Lord Ibelin Redmoore, and devotedly read his blog Musings of Life. These events inspired filmmaker Benjamin Ree (The Painter and the Thief), a Steens family friend who read Mats’ journey on the BBC, to visualize this story.

Ibelin thoroughly traces Mats’ existence with talking-head interviews, family home footage, original animations of Warcraft characters, a narrator reading his posts, his handwritten video game dialogue, and a mix of animation movements and character descriptions. These techniques allow Ree to symphonically center the subject without relegating family and peers to representatives. Some documentaries that focus on death, like Lightning Over Water (1980) and Frontline entry Facing Death (2010), are often heavy-handed and leave little room for happiness. Their soon-to-be-deceased protagonists tend to reflect on the past instead of pondering that life might continue once they leave Earth. The places and people Ree captures exemplify Mats’ profound effects on their lives. Warcraft also serves as a haven to find love for Mats after he experienced ableism in his adolescence.

As Ibelin jumps into the World of Warcraft sequences, it decreases whatever resonance that I got from the BBC article. In these scripted moments, we see the animated users performing as their characters, and there’s a lost translation of users in the online landscape. The game’s jargon, how it separates from its settings, halt the narrative’s arc. Mats, as Ibelin, falls in love with Lisette and her embodiment of Rumour, and they accomplish some objectives during his sessions. But their newfound chemistry jars itself from in-game demonstration during the narrative. 

It is already a tedious, daunting task for Ree and company to bridge live-action and role-playing game scenes while attracting non-gamers to Ibelin. Though they see the potential of forming lifelong relationships and universality in performing an activity, the execution in converting the filmmaking modes was slightly off-putting, where it takes a while for Robert and Trude to get back in the movie. The role-playing portions could have been used as short films to accompany the feature. Yet Ree celebrates Mats’ intangible, tactile milestones for eternity. Ree knows that so many more of his plans can still come to fruition and fulfill the mission of making his drawings come to life in this collaborative project. 

With its limitations in connecting video games and reality, Ibelin recognizes valuable gamers and the benefits of operating in an Internet void. Ree kindles the possibilities of living across multiple universes and that people with disabilities can thrive with their assets. There’s ebullience and friendship when we are not in physical touch with others, something Mats’ life acknowledges.

Ibelin premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Netflix.

Grade: C+

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