Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree, whose previous film “The Painter and the Thief” picked up a host of awards including Best Storytelling at Sundance, has given Variety exclusive access to his new doc film project, “Ibelin,” at the Copenhagen Intl. Documentary Film Festival.
The film is named after the “World of Warcraft” avatar of Mats Steen, a young Norwegian man who died at the age of 25 from DMD (Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy), a rare genetic disorder that causes muscle degeneration.
After his death, Mats’ parents discovered that their disabled son, who for the last 10 years of his life had been wheelchair-bound and needed constant medical assistance, has led a rich and eventful life online and made friends around the world on the way.
After acquiring the rights to his story through a book published by Mats’ father and the content of Mats’ blog, Ree decided to recreate Mats’ avatar’s life in animation form in what he says “will be the first time ever, to my knowledge.”
“They stored so much information – there are 42,000 forum posts! – and we are planning to take out models from the game, like the trees, the background, the buildings, the characters and the dialogue, and tell Mats’ avatar story. It’s quite extraordinary to have so much archival material that makes it possible to recreate his online life.”
The biggest challenge will be to condense nearly a decade of avatar life into one film, says Ree, who is currently working on a first animatic draft.
In addition to the animation, “Ibelin” will also feature footage drawn from some 50 hours of home-made videos shot by Mats’ parents, as well as present day interviews with family and friends.
For the filmmaker, “this story is about the value of a life. Mats was as ill as it’s possible to be, he had 11 assistants, he could only move his fingers a bit and had all kinds of machines including a breathing machine to keep him alive. He had specialized equipment that allowed him to game. And he was also this amazing friend, who helped his friends out in so many ways [which you will see in the film].”
Some of these friends from his gaming community, whom Ree has been traveling around Europe to meet, will appear in interviews in the film. It was this community, says producer Ingvil Giske, that helped Mats gain his independence despite being in a wheelchair – one of the key messages of the film.
“If you’re not a gamer yourself it’s hard to totally understand how an avatar life can be a real life – and that is extremely important for so many young people who game: to show how an avatar life can be so extremely meaningful, both to themselves and to other people, that they have real friends in the game who have the same value to you as friends in real life,” she says, adding “Our experience from the [COVID] pandemic means we are ready to hear this story right now because there have been a lot of people sitting inside gaming.”
Ree is teaming up once again with collaborators from “The Painter and the Thief,” DOP Tore Vollan, editor Robert Stengård, composer Uno Helmersson and producer Ingvil Giske, who also produced “The Eclipse,” which is vying for the top Dox:Award in Copenhagen.
“Ibelin” is produced by Oslo production company Medieoperatørene in co-production with Norway’s VGTV. It is supported by the Norwegian Film Institute and Oslo-based NGO The Fritt Ord Foundation. The release date is set for 2023.