Tuesday, October 21, 2008

BEN X -- and a lengthy chat with writer/director Nic Balthazar

By the time it opens theatrically in the U.S., Nic Balthazar's BEN X will have played in 13 countries -- from its home in Belgium to Canada, Finland, Hungary, the UK, Turkey and more (in Israel, for some reason, it went straight to video). It has won five film festival awards (Montreal, Palm Springs and Sedona) and is currently nominated for the Audience Award at the 2008 European Film Awards.

Film Movement, one of our favorite distributors, has picked it up for U.S. release, and it opens this Friday at NYC's Cinema Village for at least a one-week run, maybe more. (If you don’t catch it theatrically, you can rest assured that, as with any of the Film Movement titles that get a theatrical release, it'll appear on DVD at a later date.) As impressed as I continue to be with the Film Movement catalog, and as much as I can identify with a main character who is bullied badly in school, I have to say that Ben X is not among my favorite FM titles. The story comes complete with a full quota of angst: A somewhat autistic young man (Asperger Syndrome, perhaps?) is bullied and made fun of by his classmates. His (broken) home life is only slightly better than that of school, and so he begins to lose himself in a particular video game, slowly merging game and reality.

The possibilities for melodramatic excess are high and Balthazar, a first-time filmmaker, generally gives into them. Yet his film possesses enough event and mystery to grip an audience and his cast does a proper job of bringing the story to life. Where the movie most lost me was in it's overboard use of the videogame -- the very thing, of course, that may endear it to teenagers. As the film moves along, there seems to be more and more of this "game" until I wanted to shout, "Enough already: I understand what's happening."
Writer/director Nic Balthazar (above) was in NYC last month because his film was showing as part of the Real Abilities New York Disabilities Film Festival, so TrustMovies took advantage of the chance to speak with him about his film, his career, his main character's disability and… bullying.

TRUST MOVIES: Though you were born and raised in Belgium, have you lived in other places?

Nic Balthazar: (chuckling) I'm the kind of guy who said he'd be living in New York City by the age of 23 but is still living in Belgium. However, I am in NYC now! Actually, I live Ghent. The story of my life is the cliché of the guy who wanted to become an actor but who was smart enough to realize he wasn't good enough. Like the cliché of the footballer who realizes that he will never play in the major leagues. Further cliché is that, as an actor, you then become a director. Further, further cliché: You become a film journalist, as I did. In Belgium I am a TV personality: I was a talk show host and I also do a travel show that lets me go all over the world. That is how I became a director and started to direct my travel documentaries.

What led you to making this film -- or more appropriately, to first writing the novel on which you based the film?

The genesis of the film was a book I was asked to write: An educational project where an editor at a publishing house asked me to write a book for adolescents. I thought, "Oh, a writer who doesn't write much is going to write a book for adolescents who don't read much." Then I came across a story about a teenager who jumped off a very tall building in Belgium because he was constantly bullied at school -- from middle school right through high school until he could not take it any longer.

How close to the "real" story does yours come?

There are many similarities but, without going into details and then spoiling the film for those who have not seen it, I don't want to say too much. The mother of the boy actually said that "Nobody can ever tell me anything that will offer me consolation." So I thought maybe if I write this story it will offer some consolation. I hope that my film can bring some hope where there was none.
I wrote the book first. And the film was sort of already there in the structure of the book. An actor actually asked me to make the novel into a play -- for a solo performance. I did not think this was such a good idea, but we did end up making a kind of multimedia theatre pieces that became a huge hit in Belgium. It also incorporated bits like you see in the film. Sort of like a TV documentary that incorporates gaming, the internet, music -- a kind of theatre production for young people who don't usually like theatre. Both the novel and the play were successful. In a survey taken the year after the book came out, the kids said that, after Bridget Jones Diary, this book was their favorite.

How did you cast your lead actor? Was the real character this good looking? My experience with the autistic (granted not all that encompassing) is that most of them are nowhere near as attractive as your leading actor, perhaps because they let themselves go physically and don't -- or can't -- care so much about their appearance.

No, no, a lot of the autistic are very good looking. In the broad autism spectrum, which is a lot more elaborate than we realize, there are all kinds of autism, not just the Dustin Hoffman RAIN MAN sort.

Do you mean that one might not call people like your main character "autistic," but rather say that they possess some symptoms of autism?

Yes, but there are so many of these people -- and different levels of autism -- that it is difficult to say or to know how to place these people who have a kind of brain deficit or brain malfunction For example, their social skills are underdeveloped. Some people have the incapacity to know what a smile is. Others know what all the different kinds of smiles are. Facial expressions are so much more important a part of communication than, for instance, conversation and the words we say. Often people with Asperger Syndrome -- some people refer to this as high-functioning autism -- can speak very, very well. As well as Obama. This diagnosis has been made regarding people as different as Mozart, Glenn Gould and Bill Gates. Certainly, not all high- functioning people are geniuses but it usually means they have well developed intellectual skills but very underdeveloped social skills.

Did you see Sandrine Bonnaire's Her Name is Sabine?

Yes, yes, and that person was on the other end of the autism scale. Two sides of a coin-- you have to see it as a ball, in fact, Sabine is on one side of the ball: core autism. Ben X is what they call mild autism. Autistic people have told me that they don't like to be seen as having mild autism. It is not mild to them -- because other people then demand that they function well in society, when this is so difficult for someone who gets lost trying for social communication: Hence the bullying, the anxiety, and the despair. Anxiety is really the one constant here. But once we know about Asperger and the autism spectrum, we can help .We can give patients a structure and take away some of the anxiety. Not take away the autism, of course, but we can help. Or we can ignore all this and make their lives miserable.

How did you determine how much of the "video game" visuals to show during the film.

In the editing room of course, but the interesting thing about the video game was that it gave us our chance. Video games really are things that the autistic do play, and the games may help them get out of their isolation. In fact, most -- many -- teenagers of all kinds do this. It can, however, provoke another isolation that they get into, by going too deep in the game. Speak with any youngsters who game more than 3 to 4 hours a day and they'll tell you that real life and virtual life are merging.

Hmmm. Some of us might say the same thing about movies and real life.

Right. The interesting thing is that we did not have any Speilberg kind of budget for Ben X. We could not go up to Pixar and ask them to manufacture effects for us. So what we did was to pair up with a Korean video game that really exists. This pairing was the thing that gave the film its look and the production values that we would not have been able to have otherwise. We went into this online video game and we had actors play out the scenes. So then I could go into the film and do anything I wanted: booms shots, dolly shots, all those things. You've heard the phrase they use: second life -- like a combined chat room and video game? With this, you could basically take the screenplay of any Woody Allen comedy and shoot it inside this virtual space. So we did this with our own screenplay. Then we cut the virtual into the real. We had a kind of virtual space; sitting around the table with my four gamers, I'd say "Action!" The result earned us the Heineken Red Star award at the Palm Spring Festival. I am really happy with the award, because this is kind of a new thing for filmmakers. We were the first film to combine "machinima" and live action!

Can you talk a bit about suicide, autism, bullying and how they all impact on your film?

From the outset, I never wanted to make film where suicide would be seen as a solution or any sort of plausible revenge. The statistics are that four out of ten teen-agers actively contemplate suicide, and one out of ten actually do it. They may not succeed, but they try. We, in Flanders, live in one of the richest countries in the world, just as you do in America, yet the despair among teenagers is incredible. After hanging around schools here in the New York City area, I could tell you stories that would chill your bones -- about the violence and despair and hopelessness. You know, I think that the flaw of my film is the also the strength of my film: It has a really strong message, and this is always dangerous.

How is this dangerous?

Messages are dangerous to filmmaking. If you put a message into your movie but don't make a cool film out of it, you end up with just this finger-wagging message. "Thou shalt not bully!" That would be plan dumb for a filmmaker. Your story must be the message, and the message must be your story. These topics need to be addressed. Not just autism -- but alienation, drug issues, bullying, broken homes, suicide. So many things.… It seems as though we have put almost all the problems into one film, but these problems are all connected. Our young people are the canaries in the coal mine, and they are in incredible pain, dealing with incredible violence. Where does this go?

It seems to me that you movie is really as much about the evils of bullying as about the lack of the public's comprehension of autism.

I am glad you say that because to me autism is only one part of it. This is about a person with autism saying that the world around me does not understand me, but I don't understand the world around me. People who have autism feel this -- this lack of empathy. But so do nine out of ten teenagers. They feel this same way! They have difficulty getting into other people's minds. We live in an autistic society, so to speak, because of this lack of empathy. We’re so competitive, so aggressive, with little empathy for others. Consequently, anyone who falls out of the "normal" category is likely to be bullied.

Perhaps this film will appeal more to young people than to adults and seniors.

Yes, this is not an art-house film. Just because it has subtitles does not make it art-house. At the Montreal Film Fest we won the Grand Prix des Amériques, as well as the audience award for most popular film. This seems to be a film that can appeal to different generations.

What's next on your agenda, film-wise or novel-wise?

The strange thing is that, with the incredible success of Ben X, we went immediately to Montreal and Toronto, where people asked us if we would sell the remake rights. But we hung on to them, and that is why I am currently rewriting the same story in the context of an American remake. But who know if it will happen? I have been told that I have a 25% possibility of success.

I would think that, because Ben X, in its way, is rather mainstream, perhaps you will succeed at this.

Yes, I think you are right. So far, here in America, it is seen more as an art film. But in Europe, it was seen as more mainstream.

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