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True/False 2024: Ibelin, Alien Island, Yintah

Usually, I make it a rule to not rewatch films at festivals; When my time on the ground is so limited, I would rather discover a new title rather than re-explore (in fact, the only time I’ve ever rewatched any film at a festival was with “Dolemite is My Name” at TIFF). True/False, however, offered me the opportunity to catch two films I’d initially seen at home via link, this time, in a theater. Neither revisit disappointed. Additionally, I was also granted a wonderful new-to-me work that I know I’ll definitely be seeing again, soon.      

When a film hits me as hard as Benjamin Ree’s “Ibelin” did at Sundance, I tend to take a while to write about it: You need time to unwrap the ball of emotion whose center turned you to tears. “Ibelin” is a special film. It begins with a prototypical frame: A Norwegian family has recently lost their son Mats Steen after a long battle with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a degenerative muscular disease that slowly paralyzed Mats before eventually taking his life at 25-years old. Throughout Mats’ life, his parents worried about his solitary existence, his only outlet being gaming, specifically and most intensely, World of Warcraft. It was only after his parents published a post to his blog announcing his death that they discovered his rich online life. 

Though you expect “Ibelin” to take the tired path of parents working to understand their son without the presence of their son, Ree’s documentary takes several galvanizing swerves. The film first combs through family home movies of Mats, using a narrator whose voice closely resembles Mats to read the autobiographical blog posts he left behind on his website. Just when we have a handle on Ree’s approach, he reworks his frame. Through archives of conversations and gameplay, along with the help of the makers of World of Warcraft, Ree recreates Mats' very real virtual life. He also interviews the many people on the platform who were touched by him too. The comprehensive vision grants a picture of Mats’ personhood, from his first love to his many joys, his self-loathing and understandable fear, avoiding what could have easily slipped into becoming an ableist trauma picture.  

Ree’s storytelling is intuitive and tight, while the animation and graphics—which often left me thinking about “We Met in Virtual Reality,” a film that told the story of how trans and nonbinary people and those on the spectrum found freedom through gaming avatars—is immersive and inventive. By the end of “Ibelin,” a work that left much of True/False’s Missouri Theatre sniffling, we’re not so much crying for Mats—we’re reduced to our raw nerves because of the touching life that is shown.   

Alien Island” by director Cristóbal Valenzuela Berríos is a dense black and white shot oddity. When I first watched it out of the Chicago International Film Festival, I was struck by how seamlessly it blended true-crime with conspiracy theories, odes to the “Twilight Zone” with a country’s caustic political history. It’s why I’m grateful I got to watch it again at True/False, this time in a theater, in a space called the Globe that usually serves as a church. The ethereal meaning of the setting, for many reasons, felt fitting considering the extraterrestrial happenings of Berríos’ slippery documentary. 

For many decades, a legend surrounding Friendship Island has consumed Ufologists and Chileans. There have been reports of strange messages emanating from the atoll, along with rumors of advanced technology capable of curing mortal diseases and instances of many venturing to the island never to return. In milky black and white, talking heads, framed claustrophobically by low-key lighting, talk about shortwave radio conversations with ship captains sharing their strange experiences. Clips from local low-budget talk shows give a background of theories for what secrets Friendship might hold while sparse “evidence” works to draw us in closer. They all lead back to Ernesto de la Fuente Gandarillas, a strange and enigmatic figure claiming to not only have special knowledge of the atoll, but of being cured of cancer during a visit. 

For his part, Berríos isn’t necessarily interested in whether these rumors are true or if Gandarillas really believes in the yarn he’s spinning. He is far more taken by why people would become obsessed with stories of aliens. The answer lies in the many references the film makes to Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror and the sudden, widespread disappearances that happened under him. The need to explain the unexplained—what happened to the loved one who was suddenly rounded up by secret soldiers in the middle of the night?—occurs through the escapism offered by such divergent preoccupations. A loved one hasn’t necessarily vanished into oblivion; they’ve merely been transported to another world is a desperate belief that morphs into a personal reality. Crimes were not committed; rather orders were followed for some higher good. It’s the finicky retraining of the mind, experienced by the victim and the perpetrator alike that makes “Alien Island” a captivatingly layered investigation into a country’s unresolved trauma.    

In 1997, after a decade-plus of fighting, the decision in Delgamuukw v British Columbia by Canada’s Supreme Court held the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en people as holding the title to the area around Burns Lake, British Columbia, Canada. Nevertheless, over the years many white-owned private businesses, specifically energy corporations, have tried to encroach on their land. While the Wet’suwet’en haven often employed a checkpoint to guard the lone road through the land, that may not be enough to stop their biggest foe: Coastal GasLink. They want to run an oil pipeline through this untouched, verdant space, and through a deal with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau now have federal permission to do so. That decision doesn’t sit right with Howilhkat Freda Huson, she mans a cabin overlooking the barricade, or the area’s many other indigenous inhabitants. 

Brenda Michell, Jennifer Wickam, and Michael Toledano’s righteous film “Yintah,” whose name derives from the Wet’suwet’en word for “land,” documents the years-long fight to save the precious fields, trees, and natural springs that support a way of life. It does so partly through the unflinching spirit of Huson and the unmatched wit of former law student Sleydo’ Molly Wickham, two women who go toe-to-toe with big business and the extralegal presence of RCMP (it’s always hilarious seeing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police getting shut down, quickly, by these two women). 

Mitchell and Toledano, of course, capture copious moments of these motivated tribes marshaling resources to take several stands. They also elaborate on the traditional nonviolent practices used to slow down the pipeline. The weight of the people’s fervent activism is often overwhelmed through the, at best, passive defense by RCMP of Coastal GasLink. Though these cops claim to merely be passive observers dispatched there to simply keep the peace, it is telling how often they bend to enforcing the whims of Coastal GasLink through laws that are inherently stacked against these indigenous people. Because of these authorities, the gorgeous sweeping vistas documented by this film’s enrapturing cinematography gives way to hellish images of strewn, chewed up land marked by apparent and invisible broken barriers. 

Though the odds are seemingly forever stacked against these inhabitants, “Yintah” vigorously paints a resiliency that will never surrender. 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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