Going the Distance
Selections from True/False Film Fest 2024
by Tiffany Joy Butler

The most striking films I saw while attending the 21st edition of True/False Film Fest in the quaint college town of Columbia, Missouri, had me pondering fulfillment and disconnection in the technological age. Benjamin Ree’s Ibelin, his third feature documentary after working as a video journalist for the BBC, opens with a framed portrait of Norwegian gamer Mats Steen at his funeral. Mats was a 25-year-old wheelchair user when he died from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. A friend of the Steen family, Ree was inspired after reading a 2019 BBC article about how much Mats had mattered to his online friends. Ree’s documentary intercuts narration and performed reenactments with home videos that Mats’s father Robert recorded spanning his son’s early childhood to young adulthood. The film juxtaposes Mats’s life experiences as a disabled person and as his digital avatar, Ibelin Redmoore.

It was only after Robert typed one last post in his son’s Musings of Life blog, sharing the news of Mats’s passing, that the curtain was pulled back on his online social life and his family first understood the effect he had on others. This post prompted Mats’s online friends to email Robert with heartfelt condolences describing the impact Ibelin had in the fantasy role-playing game World of Warcraft. This moment was revelatory as Mats’s family assumed he’d led an isolated life. Mats had escaped into Azeroth, a planet of lush forests, taverns, and mountains and as Ibelin, a blonde, muscular detective and nobleman, ran almost every day, flirted with women, and fell in love. Ree beautifully showcases gameplay through animated reenactments and reveals the often misunderstood world of gaming. In interviews, gamers share stories of how Mats offered thoughtful advice and support that drastically changed their lives. Essential among these is Lisette, who relates that in high school her parents took away her computer as they believed her gaming was poorly affecting her grades—the filmmaker depicts her subsequent depression as a two-dimensional, expressive, black-and-white animation. As the film reveals, Lisette and Mats had romantic feelings for one another, their relationship inside the game enacted between their avatars, Rumour and Ibelin.

As his health declined, Mats began to increasingly write about his life in blog posts, read aloud in the film by an actor on-screen. His personality and soul were more fully appreciated in World of Warcraft, and Ree makes this a guiding principle of his film, which is focused more on Mats’s internal world than his physical disability. Toward the end of the film, online friends, many of whom attended his funeral, share that their avatars now honor him with an annual memorial for Ibelin in the game. The last shot is of Mats’s tombstone, which includes his full name as Mats “Ibelin” Steen.

Director Jazmin Jones also looks at our complex connections to contemporary technology with Seeking Mavis Beacon. Jones is a subject in her own documentary, showcasing her obsession with the game-like software Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Seeking to learn more about Renée L'Espérance, the Haitian-born model whose likeness was used to represent the computerized teacher of the software’s title, Jones and collaborator Olivia McKayla Ross, poet-programmer and video artist, scour the internet, interview artists and neighbors, and post flyers asking for people to call if they had any information. Structured like a neonoir, the documentary is mostly set in their DIY art/office studio, decorated with neon lights, comfy-looking couches, a fish tank, and posters of legendary Black women like punk rocker Poly Styrene. Alongside the artist-investigators’ sense of thrill and urgency as they try to get to the bottom of the mystery, the filmmakers weave in layers of recent Black cultural history, from clips of Oprah and Wendy Williams to TikTok videos, that cement the influence of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing and how it taught millions of us in the 1990s.

Jones’s style is a mix of experimental and traditional documentary filmmaking, and her desktop essay–like approach reminded me of artist Sondra Perry’s Lineage for a Multiple Monitor Workstation: Number One (2015). Jones is a member of the project-based collective B.U.F.U. aka By Us For Us, the name riffing off a joke from How High (2001). With a focus on building solidarity amongst Black and Asian communities, the collective hosted events to explore topics such as technology and race. B.U.F.U.’s ethos appears to have influenced the spirit of the film, which features interviews with artist Stephanie Dinkins and author Legacy Russell (Glitch Feminism). Mindful, socially aware artists, Jones and Ross are shown checking in on each other throughout the film via phone and video calls. Platforming health becomes an even bigger theme when Renée L’Espérance refuses to talk to the DIY investigators. After Renée has her son speak on her behalf via telephone, Jones is distraught to the point of tears. She and Ross soon discover the reason why Renée has distanced herself from an already exploitative experience: she was only paid a $500 flat fee and had filed a lawsuit against the creators of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing for what she felt was an unattractive use of her likeness. This film showcases the paradoxes of using technology as it creates barriers from human connection, while at the same time celebrating technology’s power to bring friends and artists closer together viathe shared memory of a cultural touchstone.

Daughters, co-directed by Natalie Rae and Angela Patton, depicts the negative effects of people yearning to connect but not being able to touch. The film documents young girls granted an opportunity to see their incarcerated fathers at a daddy-daughter dance. Rae was inspired to make the film after she watched a TED Talk in which Patton spoke about these dances. Rae reached out to Patton, the CEO of Girls For A Change, a youth development organization that “prepares Black girls for the world and the world for Black girls,” and they embarked on a collaboration that spanned eight years. It’s a film that seeks to emphasize Black girl joy, while at the same time showing circumstances that can prevent Black girls from experiencing that joy.

The directors focus on the lives of four Black girls as they prepare for the dance. Among them is Aubrey, whose story is the most heartbreaking. She first appears on screen as a five-year-old, her hair braided with purple beads, natural sunlight from her bedroom window streaming across her face as she proudly expresses what she recently learned in math class. She talks of her father, Keith; bubbly and choosing to not dwell on his absence, Aubrey nonchalantly says that he will be home in seven years.

A montage set to Phil Phillips & the Twilights’ R&B 1950s hit “Sea of Love” shows the girls applying lip gloss or having their hair straightened while the fathers put on ties lent by the Girls For A Change organization. The filmmakers’ use of 16mm lends a dreamlike feeling to the dance scenes and expressive montage sequences depicting young Black girls in nature. The film then jumps ahead one year, as Aubrey and her mother solemnly celebrate her sixth birthday, the table strewn with photographs of Keith, whom Aubrey has been disallowed from seeing since the dance. A text card reveals Keith’s final sentence of 10 years (many audience members at T/F gasped at the revelation). Years pass: at age eight, an irritated Aubrey is awakened by her mother to go and see her father. We learn, via a recorded phone call from Keith, that Aubrey was distant upon her visit and had asked to leave. On the car ride home, Aubrey receives a call from him. In close-up, Aubrey leans her head on the car door, seemingly half-awake, her responses short and distant. As the call ends, the sun rays hit her face and she drifts to sleep. The distance between father and daughter has become as emotional as it is physical.

The directors do not make explicit statements in the film about abolishing prisons, yet their film nevertheless powerfully illustrates how the prison system breaks up the Black family, and depicts the negative effects incarceration has on the mental health of the prisoner's children. By not disclosing the reasons why these men were imprisoned, the directors seek empathy from the viewer rather than condemn their pasts.

Tiffany Joy Butler is the Assistant Curator of Public Programs at Museum of the Moving Image. She is a Black Puerto Rican artist/filmmaker and educator based in Queens and the founder of Hot Cabinet, a queer media arts collective.