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‘Ibelin’ Filmmaker Benjamin Ree on How to Make a Documentary With an Avatar as the Main Star

In “Ibelin” Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree focuses on Mats Steen, a Norwegian gamer who died in 2014 of a degenerative muscular disease at age 25. Ree, who as a child was family friends with the Steen family, conceived of the project after reading a 2019 BBC article. The piece explains that after Mats’ death his parents discovered that they were all wrong about their son’s social life. Instead of a lonely, isolated existence in a wheelchair, they found out that Mats had been leading a vibrant digital life as Lord Ibelin Redmoore, an avatar, in the popular video game “World of Warcraft.” After his death, people from all over Europe, who had never physically met Mats, sent his parents condolence letters expressing how their son had profoundly impacted their lives.

Variety spoke with Ree ahead of the Sundance world premiere of “Ibelin” on Jan. 18.

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After reading the BBC article in 2019 did you know immediately that you wanted to make this documentary?

When I read that article, I thought it was just one of the most moving stories I ever read. I cried a lot after reading it. But I thought that it was not a very visual story. Then I found out that Mats’ father had filmed him from the day he was born. So then I began to think, “Oh, wow. We have visual elements here that are possible to use.” Then the family told me that Mats’ friends had stored an enormous amount of gaming dialogue and gaming diaries where they wrote out complex emotions. It was almost like reading a screenplay with character descriptions, character emotions, and also dialogue.

Why do you think Mats didn’t tell his family about “World of Warcraft”?

I think that he tried to explain it to them, but if you watch someone over the shoulder who is gaming and you don’t know the game, it can feel very excluding. It’s very difficult to understand.

More than half of the film is told through reconstructed animated moments from Mats’ gameplay, which is narrated by entries from his blog and interviews with people who knew him as Ibelin. Was it challenging to make a doc that relies so heavily on animation?

This film has been extremely difficult to make. We have been editing it for two years and the reason why it has been difficult is because we had to figure out how to get the audience emotionally involved in the film within the film, which is the avatar life. Another issue was having too many interviewees and (avatar) characters and linking those two together. So we had many drafts (of the film) where people were totally confused. Also the film is jumping back and forth in time, and we are changing perspectives a lot. To get it to work we had like 30 test screenings.

Were you worried about copyright laws?

We contacted the company that owns the game – Activision Blizzard – without them knowing about the film and we asked the bosses if they would like to watch the film. So we went to California. I was so nervous that my hands were shaking and I had to take some extra doses of my asthma medicine, because we didn’t have a plan B. So we showed them the film and after the screening I didn’t dare to look up. Gradually I did look up and some of the bosses were really moved and touched by the film. Some of them had tears in their eyes, and they said, “We want to support this project. We want you to be able to make it.” They were very supportive of the project. We were very fortunate.

They must have been happy to finally see a film that portrays video games in a positive light.

This film is honoring the gaming community. That’s what we are trying to achieve here. We hope that it will feel like that for the gamers around the world.

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