Ibelin Image


By Bobby LePire | January 30, 2024

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2024 REVIEW! It is not a spoiler to say that Mats Steen, the subject of Ibelin, died at the age of 25. In fact, his death is the catalyst for director Benjamin Ree’s documentary. The young Norgewian was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy as a boy. His caring parents, Trude and Robert Steen, lament all the things Steen will miss out on once in a wheelchair. So they allow him to play video games as long as he wants. Soon, the boy becomes enamored with World Of Warcraft, like so much of the rest of the world. Steen also kept a blog wherein he detailed his thoughts on life, his condition, and much more.

Immediately after Steen’s death, his parents were understandably lost in a haze. But they soon realized that they needed to contact his friends online. So the Steens leave a blog post explaining what happened, expecting, at most, one or two replies, if any. Instead, the family is inundated with messages from all the lives “Ibelin” touched and helped in the popular game. Hundreds upon hundreds of condolences arrived. Steen’s parents were overwhelmed, never realizing that all those he’d missed out on were experiences he had in the game as Ibelin.

This is where Ibelin takes an unexpected but entirely welcome turn. The film recreates various scenes from the game by using archived chats, the man’s blog posts, and descriptions of character actions. The animation uses models directly from the game. Ibelin falls in love, helps a mother and son connect, and makes friends everywhere he goes. As thoughtful and kind as he can be, Steen is still a human going through something unimaginable. As such, he would occasionally be short-tempered or awfully rude.

A still from Ibelin by Benjamin Ree, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

“…the family is inundated with messages from all the lives ‘Ibelin’ touched…”

Ibelin is as perfect a film as one could ever hope for. Family movies, the WoW animation, the narration (provided by a sound-alike of Mats Steen), and the interviews with friends and family are interwoven to stunning effect. Each narrative strand — the parents’ grief and discovery of their deceased son’s virtual friends, Steen’s view on his life, the video game life, and his online friends expressing themselves now — builds on each scene for maximum impact. After moving into his own place, Steen prominently hung a piece of art he loved. The reveal of where the drawing comes from and who/what it depicts is an emotional gut punch of the best kind.

Ree ably manages the tone, which is trickier than it might sound. There’s grief but also hope, love, loneliness, anger, and just about every other emotion imaginable. It is a lot to handle, but it is also poignant and surprisingly sweet. If any audience member has a dry eye after hearing Robert Steen’s eulogy, they lack a soul.

Ibelin is a love letter to a man gone from this world too soon. The director walks the delicate tightrope of emotions so that every new development makes previous scenes all the more intense. Steen wanted to know that he mattered to someone, anyone, before departing this mortal coil. Ree perfectly highlights that he did and still does and will to all who watch this perfect documentary.

Ibelin screened at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Ibelin (2024)

Directed: Benjamin Ree


Starring: Mats Steen, Robert Steen, Trude Steen, Mia Steen, etc.

Movie score: 10/10

Ibelin Image


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join our Film Threat Newsletter

Newsletter Icon