From L-R: Robert Steen, Trude Steen, Mia Steen and Benjamin Ree (Marc Sagliocco/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)
by Veronika Lee Claghorn
Now here’s a story that may not have ever been told at the Sundance Film Festival: At the Thursday, January 18 world premiere of the documentary Ibelin, director Benjamin Ree told the audience that although he did not know the subject of his film personally, he had seen himself on a VHS recording playing with the late Mats Steen in a playpen as a toddler. The two were born in the late 1980s and their parents were friends. Years later, when Ree (The Painter and The Thief, 2020 Sundance) learned of Steen’s passing from complications of Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy at the age of 25, he reached out to Mats’ parents to ask about making a documentary about their child’s fascinating life.
They were reluctant at first. In the first minutes of the documentary, Robert Steen talks about all he had wished for for his son and said he was most disappointed that his son would “never be able to make a difference to others.” Little did he or the rest of his family know how wrong they were.
While Mats was confined to a wheelchair for most of his life, he had a secret world that no one in his immediate family knew about. Ree perfectly introduces us to his one-time childhood playmate, through VHS footage and family recollections replete with those succinct Scandinavian silences — a sadness like snow hangs in the air around everyone interviewed. Just as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz seemingly stepped out of a black-and-white world into the one of emerald and blue, the documentary shifts as Mats retreats into an alternate universe.
Mats’ family bemoaned how many hours per week he played video games. When he died, they learned, however, that via one popular role-playing game, “World of Warcraft,” Mats had quite the remarkable life and in fact changed many lives, and hearts. “We even found out that he was a bit of a womanizer,” says his father, affectionately and jokingly. “Which I have to admit that as a father, makes me kind of proud.”
Twenty years ago, it might have sounded crazy to imagine a packed audience at the Sundance Film Festival crying while watching scenes from “World of Warcraft,” but that’s precisely what happened. Via a muscular avatar named Ibelin, Mats made and connected deeply with friends all over. At the end of the film, which features actual exchanges between Mats and his online gamer friends, voiced by professional voiceover artists and fully animated, Ree brought out Mats’ father, mother Trude, and sister, Mia, to whom the audience gave a standing ovation. Ree also invited to the stage Lisette Roovers (known as “Rumour” in the game), the object of Ibelin’s most treasured affection.
The first question raised at the Q&A asked about the negative stigma usually associated with video games. Mats’ father was happy to answer. “In Norway, we have beautiful trees everywhere. We say good people climb trees,” says the elder Steen. He admits that at first, he did not understand why his son, whose muscles were rapidly deteriorating, chose to isolate himself from family and activities. “I made a major mistake. I had no idea what this was all about. Hopefully this film [shows that there are new ways of meeting and knowing people.] It asks: What does it mean to be friends? What is love really all about? All these layers are there in the story… At the end of the day, this is a story about hope and what we really need more than ever is hope.”
If the tears and the applause of the audience are to be believed, the 25 years Mats “Ibelin” Steen spent on Earth, and in that world of Azeroth, certainly provided hope to others and will continue to do so for many years because of the humanity and tenderness at the heart of this film.