Tuesday, January 08, 2008

PSIFF08: BEN X—Q&A With Director Nic Balthazar

Ben X, Belgium’s submission as Best Foreign Language Film for the 2008 Academy Awards, is about an autistic boy named Ben who retreats into the computer game fantasy world of Archlord to escape bullying. As indicated by Wikipedia: “The film's title is a reference to the leet version of the Dutch phrase “(ik) ben niets”, meaning “(I) am nothing”.

The film won three awards at the 31st Montreal World Film Festival: the Grand Prix des Amériques, the Prix du Public for the most popular film, and the Ecumenical Jury Prize for its exploration of ethical and social values. Nic Balthazar accompanied Ben X to its PSIFF screening and responded to questions from his appreciative audience. Despite some logical inconsistencies, the film gains traction by being such a crowd pleaser. It’s hard not to relate to a loner misfit tormented by bullies.

Balthazar, already a well-known film journalist and television personality in Belgium, was thoroughly charming in his enthusiasm for his first directorial feature. He had the audience eating out of his hand with his gregarious humor, an especially important skill when—as he puts it—he’s the “human marketing machine” promoting his film. Being Belgium’s entry in the Oscar nominations race has put a lot of pressure on him. He feels that he has to win this thing or he’ll be banished from Belgium. “And it’s such a small country,” he laughed, “that you’re easily banished.”

I started out the questioning by noting that the film claims to be based upon true events and I asked if he could qualify which specific events?

Balthazar: Unfortunately, yes, the whole story of this film began with an article in the newspaper. It’s these tales of ordinary horror that you read every day and unfortunately there the story was a lot sadder than we see in the hopeful ending in the film because it was the story of a 17-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome that committed suicide in my home town of Ghent. He threw himself off the medieval castle that we have there, and wrote in his last letter that he had been basically bullied to death. There was an interview with the mother that was so heartwrenching where she said, “There is nothing that anybody will ever be able to tell me that will offer me any consolation.”

At that time they had asked me to write a book for young people who don’t read—an immense audience because most of the young people don’t read these days—and I said, “That’s a perfect fit because I’m the author who doesn’t write.” So I started out making up a story with these same ingredients; a story that—if not consolation—would offer [some] comprehension for this family in mourning. So I didn’t quite go to them and ask them about all the specific details.

Unfortunately this is a story that happens a lot with kids, be they autistic or not. One out of three kids is bullied and, unfortunately, the suicide numbers you hear in the film are actually authentic. One out of ten youngsters in Belgium has actually pursued the thought of suicide. This is, of course, staggering and I’m afraid the numbers stateside are not so much better.

So, yes, Ben X was inspired by true events. It was first a novel, Nothing Was All He Said was the title. There was an actor who came up to me and asked me to make a play out of it, a solo. He said, “I found this story and I really want to tell it to people. I want to go around with this story.” I said, “That’s great; but, the boy is autistic. These are not the people who go on stages and tell their stories.” So we made this multimedia kind of play where he was on stage and the people behind him—as so often—tell the story as on television and this is still to be found in the screenplay and in the film.

Frako Loden followed suit by asking if the film would be shown in Japan where bullying and suicide rates are phenomenal?

Balthazar: Yes, and where
Archlord the game, which is a South Korean game, is also immensely popular in Japan where this phenomenon of young people who withdraw in their rooms and in this fantasy world is also an incredible reality. The strange thing is that we thought Japan would be our prime target for international sales and they said, “Well, this is not an American film, this is a Belgian film and that will be so hard to market.” Hence, the plans we already have for an American remake because I’m afraid also here autism, suicide, people living in the world of Warcraft—more than they live in their real social reality—are also givens.

A woman asked if there was a chance the film would be shown in schools where it might do some good?

Balthazar: We, of course, sure hope so and we have some offers for a DVD release. But you have to help us on the theatrical release because that’s the way this game is played. It all depends on this Oscar game and it’s a very strange game where we’re up against so many other fabulous films but also fabulous marketing campaigns. I’m like the human marketing machine selling myself here and you are all I have to work with; but, we will work well together, I hope. It all depends on that really, whether we have a theatrical release or not, maybe unfortunately, but I’m sure we would try to make it also with this film.

A gentleman noted that the suicide rate among gay teenagers is much higher than among straights and culled out that in the film Ben is frequently called a “faggot.” He asked if Balthazar thought homophobia had something to do with the way people reacted to Ben?

Balthazar: Absolutely. I wanted the autism to be a symbol, an allegory for all the people who are different and, hence, are often bullied to death, as you say. If people be autistic, or high achievers, low achievers, if they be Black or Gay or anything that makes them stand out and be different, this is also why it’s the harsh realities of life—and I have obviously done quite a lot of research—the homophobia in schools and amongst teenagers is heartwrenching. One of the first insults will always be “faggot” and that’s why we put it in the movie.

Balthazar was asked at what point he became involved in filmmaking and why?

I was on the other side really. I was one of these people they call film critics. I prefer to call myself a film journalist. Godard said a film critic is the one who shoots on his own regiment and I always felt that this wasn’t the case with the true film critics I knew and admired and I tried to be because you belong more to the regiment than anything else. I hope to have shown that filmmakers and film critics are not so far apart as we tend to think. It’s like—if you like good cooking and you go to good restaurants—you’re bound to end up in your own kitchen at a certain moment and, well, courage is everything—the slogan of the film—the courage to try and open my own restaurant at a certain time and, of course, you must know that you are living my fantasy or part of it. Of course being a film critic and then making a film is quite dangerous. We screened the film for the first time at the Montreal Film Festival where my dream began because my dream was: “We’re going to go to Montreal. We’re going to be at the biggest film festival in North America. We’re going to be in competition already and then we’re going to win the festival and we’re going to win the audience award and people are going to love us.” We actually ended up winning the Montreal Film Festival and the audience award and that’s how we came to be here where—thanks to you—we’re going to be winning the audience award, I hope!

It is exciting times with this Oscar thing and this is the place where you can really meet an audience and you know that you do stand a chance because I’m in such awe for the people I contend with. It would also seem presumptuous to say, “I want to win also” but to heck with that, yeah, we need to win! And if we don’t win, it’s all right of course.

Another gentleman praised Greg Timmermans’ strength in the leading role and asked if he was in the stage play and, if not, how long it took to find him for the movie?

Balthazar: Thank you for that question. It’s the only sad story in the making of this film. The play, which ran 250 performances, was with another actor who was fabulous also and who was only 30 years old by the time he came to the 250th performance and said that maybe he was getting a little too old to play a teenager and, of course, in film it shows. He was a beautiful macho kind of guy and it was incredible how he played it on stage; but, you can imagine. Basically, it was like saying good-bye to your wife and having a divorce while you still love her very much and then going to look for a new wife. Bigamy! It’s one of these casting stories of course and they’re always wonderful and often true and this one is actually true. I said, “I need to find a new Ben. How do I do this?” A friend of mine had made one short film with this boy [Greg Timmermans] who came two years out of acting school, no film experience whatsoever except for that short film, which was a multimedia kind of thing. I put it in my computer and I said, “This guy is going to be Ben.” I just knew! I called my producer and I said, “Hey listen, I’m so excited, I just found Ben! We can call off the auditions. I just found Ben!” He said, “You with your enthusiasm, it’s great but it’s annoying, man! We need to do auditions. You know this.” I said, “Okay, we’ll do auditions; but, you’ll see. It’s going to be him.” And, of course, after all the auditions of many talented young actors in Belgium, we knew it was him and the reason is up on the screen. I am now officially a bigamist. I love two actors with all my heart.

A question about knowing how to time subtitles with the pace of the dialogue evolved into comments on the failure of language to serve the autistic.

Balthazar: People with autism have a very interesting way of dealing with language. They take language literally. For them, what you say is true. For example, one of the intriguing things is they cannot lie. It’s difficult for them to conceive that there is something like irony, or symbols, whereas—with most of us—human communication is 30% the words and 70% c’est le ton qui fait la musique, as we say in French, “It’s the tone that makes the music.” They don’t capture the tone. It’s such an intriguing thing for me to suffer—if that’s the word to use—in autism.

One audience member complimented the deft incorporation of the computer game into the structure of the film and asked how—while he was writing the script—Balthazar envisioned that whole story line? Specifically because it wasn’t just a reference of a kid playing a game and his being a gamer, per se, but a folding of the fantasy world of the game into Ben’s real world.

Balthazar: Thank you for that question because this is one of the things that I’m proud of. It was just one good idea. You sometimes have one good idea in one year and this was a good idea. We live in Belgium, which is as small as the Palm Springs desert, I think. We don’t have the budgets they have in Hollywood. Mr. Spielberg would have just called Pixar and said, “Hey guys, I need this video game.” We just basically went the other way around. Archlord is a real existing game, as I said, it’s a South Korean game. Online these things are called
MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), which means all these people are actually connected like in the world of Warcraft or Second Life; you probably know that. People are actually with their avatars in this virtual space.

What we did was—instead of having people make this game—we just went inside of this game, so to speak, and filmed there. I had four gamers sitting around the table and one was playing Ben and one was playing Scarlite and the others played the monsters. It’s your wet dream as a director because I was the camera. With my mouse I could do these fantastic camera movements that go up and down and normally you would need a crane, etc. But that’s what’s so fantastic about cyberspace: it never rains, your actors are for free, they do whatever you want, whatever you tell them, they don’t need a trailer or anything. You can basically organize anything. You can do a Woody Allen comedy inside Second Life for example; you could do it. This is called in the world of these boys—girls also, but it’s mainly boys—who play all the time, it’s called “machinimas”. They take their monsters and have them to do flips and sing “YMCA” or silly stuff like that. I just thought, “Hey, what if I use that to enhance the production value of my film?” Because this was a film that was made in 25 days. 25 days is what they use to do one car chase in The Bourne Ultimatum. That’s the way it was done but the brilliant thing was that we struck the deal with the Korean firm three days before shooting. That was pretty stressful. Now, this game Archlord in the
Benelux has gone up 600% and they, of course, were a huge gift for us. I love their artwork and the way then that we tried to make the colors go towards each other. I had a brilliant editor and we basically did the rest.

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