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The art of moving

Ibelin, Unknown landscape
WITH HUMAN DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL / The Norwegian documentaries Ibelin and Ukjent landskap, both of which have made a strong international impression, tell moving stories about special individuals – but at the same time provide enriching perspectives on our social life. Both films give heartwarming portrayals of a person who is no longer alive, but who has left a strong imprint.


Norwegian documentary film is making a strong impact internationally at the moment, which was not least seen in the important Sundance Film Festival in January. Two Norwegian films were selected for the festival's competition for documentaries from countries outside the host country of the USA (while the national films are dedicated to a separate competition) and ended up winning the top prizes in this programme. Silje Evensmo Jacobsen#s Unknown landscape won the main award for best film, while Ibelin av Benjamin Ree walked away with both the award for best director and the audience award. Shortly after was Ibelin awarded the prize for best Nordic documentary at the film festival in Gothenburg.

The two documentaries are not necessarily particularly similar, but have some features in common – including the fact that they are very moving.

Ibelin credit Bjorg Engdahl Medieop

Social game world

Many have probably already realized that Ibelin tells about the Norwegian 'gamer' Mats Steen, who suffered from Duchenne's muscular dystrophy and died only 25 years old. The rare muscular wasting disease severely limited his mobility, but Mats instead spent much of his life in virtual worlds online. Especially in the game World of Warcraft, where he used the self-constructed game character (avatar) Lord Ibelin Redmoore.

When Mats died, his parents Trude and Robert Steen grieved not least over everything he had never had the chance to experience. But then they were contacted by a number of people from home and abroad who knew Mats through World of Warcraft – and discovered that their son's life had been far richer and more social than they assumed.

In particular, the move to recreate Mats' digital life in World of Warcraft makes Ibelin a fairly innovative documentary in terms of form.

The story of Mats 'Ibelin' Steen became known through an article by Vicky Schaubert from 2019 on NRK's ​​website. However, the documentary contains more than the article and makes excellent use of the cinematic potential of the narrative. Large parts of Mats' life were filmed by his father, which has given Ree valuable video material for the film. In addition, the communication between the players in World of Warcraft logged, and through this extensive documentation Ree has reconstructed scenes from the game. This is how the film takes us into this world, which became an arena for Mats to live a full social life. Here he made friends to whom he meant a lot, without initially telling them that he was ill and confined to a wheelchair. Eventually, however, he published a blog, which is also used as a narrative element in the film, where he was open about this.

Timely nuance

The film also contains more conventional interviews, but especially the move to recreate Mats' digital life in World of Warcraft makes Ibelin to a documentary that is quite innovative in terms of form. This is combined with an admirable flair for dramaturgy and story structure from the director, who has previously, among other things, made the documentaries Magnus (about chess player Magnus Carlsen, 2016) and The artist and the thief (2020). A great example is how Ibelin first summarizes Mats' life with the disease up to his early death, then rewinds to convey the rich life he lived through the web, which was unknown to those closest to him.

It is part of the history of the film that the director and his producer originally created the documentary, including the sequences created through models from World of Warcraft, without permission from the game's rights holders Activision Blizzard. Instead, they bet on getting the necessary permission when they presented the finished film to them, which they also got. It must undeniably be called a brave strategy, at the same time that the Microsoft-owned game company presumably saw good reasons to support the documentary, which highlights positive aspects of the online game. In light of all the concern that is expressed about unextended screen time and unhealthy conditions on digital platforms, this is experienced as a timely nuance of what 'gaming' and virtual Verdeners can provide users.

Unknown Landscape

In harmony with nature

A family that is affected by a death is also the starting point for the film by Silje Evensmo Jacobsen, who has previously, among other things, directed the documentary Faith can move mountains (2021) Unknown landscape depicts a family that has chosen to live self-sufficiently in harmony with nature on a small farm surrounded by forest, where the two parents teach the children at home. But then the mother Maria Vatne dies of cancer, it becomes difficult for British-born husband Nik Payne to maintain the lifestyle for the family, despite wanting to live up to her wishes. The film follows his and the children's approach to the more modern Norwegian society, without them wanting to break completely with their ideals and principles. This is conveyed in an exemplary nuanced way in the film, which shows both joys and challenges in the dilemmas the family faces.

Unknown Landscape

There is also a blog here that has contributed to the film. Maria made a living as a photographer and documented the family's life in text and pictures on a website. The photographs she has taken herself give Maria a strong presence in the film along with recordings of her own observations on the sound side. Beyond this is Unknown landscape an observational 'fly on the wall' documentary, which comes impressively close to the people it is about. Again with a very well-functioning dramaturgical development – as well as with a sharp eye for details and moods.

Grief is a more prominent theme in this documentary than in Ibelin. Both films give equally well heartwarming depictions of a person who is no longer alive, but who has left a strong imprint and is correspondingly strongly present in the lives of those left behind. This is then also expressed in a poetic and moving way by one of Maria's children towards the end Unknown landscape.

Narratives like these can easily feel overly sentimental and even manipulative in their quest to open the audience's tear ducts. One hardly needs to look further than the videos in one's own 'feed' in social media to find examples in this respect. Both Ibelin og Unknown landscape are, however, genuinely moving documentaries that avoid these pitfalls. The films tell close and in-depth stories about distinctive individuals that we genuinely love, while at the same time providing enriching perspectives on our social life. It is no simple art – and requires both heart and brain.

Ibelin og Unknown landscape will be shown at the Human International Documentary Film Festival in Oslo, which is organized 4–10 March. Ibelin comes to Norwegian cinemas on March 8, mens Unknown landscape comes to Norwegian cinemas on April 5.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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