Roleplaying, Autism and Normality : Nic Balthazar on Ben X

"For me the film isn’t really about autism, it’s about what we do as a society to everyone who has a problem functioning and to all the people we call the nerds, the geeks and the dorks because they’re not what everyone else is. It’s the fascism of cool. The fascism of being ‘normal’."
Nic Balthazar

up-ben_x.jpgExploring the implications of virtual worlds, Nic Balthazar's Ben X has been seen by two thirds of Belgium's teens, and is seeking to change attitudes towards autism and bullying.

Ben, an Donnie Darko-esque teen living with his single mum, is bullied ferociously in the 'real' world. Behind his case-modded PC, a kind of 21st Century wardrobe to Narnia, he escapes to a fantasy polygon land where he rides a golden stallion and rescues a Sophian damsel, who becomes the virtual femme fatal (or not) of the piece. Although some of the characters seemed as flat as a 2D scroller, as perhaps the first realist drama to strip Web 2 bare in the cold hard glare of modern life and its cruelties, it's a timely film. Best of all, in exploring the territory of mental suffering in the face of 'normality', so often in cinema presented as something either hopefless (Pi) or dangerous (A Beautiful Mind), Ben X refreshingly finds alternatives.

Inspired by a true story, by way of a video game, novel and play, writer and director Balthazar explains the process behind the film with Billy Chainsaw below.

PLEASE EXPLAIN THE GENESIS OF THE STORY/MOVIE.

The movie is inspired by true events. It starts with a real tragedy but it departs from them. Everything began with a book I was asked to write for young people who don’t read, adolescents who never pick up a book. I thought it was a good idea because I was a writer who didn’t write.

I was wondering what I should write about and there was this 17-year-old young man who threw himself off a medieval castle in Ghent, the city where I live [in Belgium]. Apparently he was mildly autistic – he suffered from Asperger syndrome – went to a normal school and in his letter of goodbye he said that he had basically been bullied to death.

That was a story of such tragedy, injustice and cruelty about someone who had never found the proper means to defend himself so found another solution. So I thought, here’s my story. Only I didn’t want to just delve into this young man’s past and go to his family and research during their moment of deepest grief. I basically took the ingredients of a 17-year-old boy who’s mildly autistic who also gamed a lot – which was all in the same article – and who had a mysterious girlfriend over the Internet. But then I kind of took off and really wanted to make a fictional story. The same article had an interview with the mother, where she said that nothing could ever offer her consolation for what had happened. I think everyone can relate to that. I immediately thought about making a story that offered no consolation but brought some comprehension to his family and their tragedy: one that would give an idea of how things could have been different. I didn’t want to make a documentary… Stanley Kubrick always said, “Cinema has to be at odds with reality.” So this is what I tried to do, to make a story that’s also at odds with the tragic reality.

WHY DID YOU TRANSFORM THE RESULTING BOOK INTO A PLAY?

Everything happens to me by surprise or some weird sort of fate. My friends tease me about the fact that I keep recycling the same story and ask “What next? You gonna make this into an opera or a ballet or maybe a video game?” But to tell you the truth, it was a young actor named Roel Vanderstukken who came to me in Belgium and said he’d been looking for a long time for a story that he wanted to base a solo performance around – and he really wanted to tell this [particular] story. I said, “Well that’s a really bad idea because the main character suffers from autism and in my story the whole problem is that we never hear their [the autistic person’s] side of the story”.

He wouldn’t take no for an answer, and I didn’t want to have anyone else ruin the story, so I took on the task of rewriting it myself. We made it, together, into a multi-media play with lots of video and dance music, and video games ‘live’ on stage – which made it really cool.

I rewrote the text in more or less verse. I studied English literature so I wanted to give it a kind of classical, wonderful, larger-than-life poetry that theatre has. But on the other hand, if the book was for young people who didn’t read, in some ways the play was a play for young people who didn’t like theatre. It worked really well – 250 standing ovations proved that.

The success of the play was why a lot of film producers became interested in it being made into a film. We found out that while the play started out as something aimed mainly at adolescents, it spoke to entire audiences because the older members could identify with the parents and the worst nightmare that you can ever live as a parent – having your child bullied and humiliated but you can’t find the means to stop it because you know you don’t have a clue about what’s really going on.

Vanderstukken was a young aspiring actor at that time and he’s now officially the George Clooney of Belgium. He does a lot of films and TV shows, he’s become a hot, sexy star – which is really why we had to recast for the movie, because he was just too old by the time we came to shoot it.

WHICH INCARNATION OF THE STORY DO YOU FEEL BEST ACHIEVES WHAT YOU ARE TRYING TO SAY?

The theatre part was really strange – it was a problematic medium to put it in. But it was beautiful to see that the circle was round when we came to make it into a movie because the book in itself reads a bit like a film. It really has the basic screenplay theory – I followed the rules to the dot. There are three acts and there’s a kind of American feel to it, because, whether we like it or not, that’s all that young people know, that’s what they immediately respond to. So you take that form and twist it around, try and tell the things you want to tell with that story. The beautiful thing about making it into a film is that it’s such a collaborative effort. The book was just me, the film is so many people giving you presents every day. The actors. The cameraman. The soundman. The editor with real and fresh ideas… It all adds up. It really makes it complete. So I would say that the film version is the most satisfying, because of all the presents you get.

HAVING PRESENTED ‘BEN X’ IN SO MANY FORMS, HAS THE STORY HAD A HUGE EFFECT ON YOU PERSONALLY AND ON THE WAY YOU VIEW AUTISM?

The first thing journalists generally ask me is, “Is this an autobiographical story?” Well no, it isn’t. I didn’t have anything to do with autism or bullying. What’s so incredibly important is that while we may think we know what autism is if we’ve seen the movie Rain Man, there are four or five times more people who are in between the most extreme form of autism – people who have Asperger syndrome or other kinds of autism spectrum disorders. I will fully admit that I had no clue myself. The more I read about it and the more I meet people with [the various forms of] autism, the more it keeps on fascinating me how people who look like us, sometimes talk like us and are not easily distinguishable from us, are so totally different in their heads. How their computer has a completely different configuration, so that they are left as Martians on Earth. The tragedy is, as we illustrate in the film, the autism is one problem, but it’s not the main problem. The main problem is us, and that’s a problem that can be solved. I always give the comparison that it’s like if you’re blind, society can help you and give you Braille, a white cane and sunglasses so that everyone can identify you and help you across the street and help you function in society – that way you can overcome the handicap/impairment.
The problem with the people in the spectrum of autism is that it goes unnoticed and that’s why they are so often, for example, the ones that are going to be bullied because they don’t understand the social grammar of our society. With young adolescents this is a matter of life or death. This is where all of a sudden – it sounds really pretentious to say – I have seen that my movie has really helped. My movie has changed things in Belgium, where the film was such an incredible hit I think that two out of three young people have seen it. Such a lot of teachers, school principals and psychologists tell me that it has really changed the way in which people behave, so that maybe they’ll hold back for a moment and think before they start bullying people who might really have a huge psychological problem.
This is the reason why you keep going with a story like Ben X and why I keep on remaking it – because you see that it matters not only for people with autism. For me the film isn’t really about autism, it’s about what we do as a society to everyone who has a problem functioning and to all the people we call the nerds, the geeks and the dorks because they’re not what everyone else is. It’s the fascism of cool. The fascism of being ‘normal’. That is for me the real theme of the film.

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