“You don’t find a story, the story finds you”
by Anne Feuillère
- Journalist, film critic and Flemish TV presenter, Nic Balthazar has gone behind the camera to direct a screen adaptation of his book Ben X. He looks back over an unusual cinematic journey
Cineuropa: You wrote a book that you adapted for the stage, then for the big screen and you may shoot a remake in the US. Aren’t you tired of Ben X [+see also:
interview: Nic Balthazar
interview: Peter Bouckaert
film profile] yet?
Nic Balthazar: Yes, it’s the story that never ends [laughs]! Five years ago, I was asked to write a novel aimed at teenagers who don’t read. The timing was perfect: I was a writer who hadn’t written anything yet!
I had the aspiration but I hadn’t written any fiction. People often say that you don’t find a story, the story finds you. This was the case with me. Fate would have it that I came across this tragic news item that profoundly moved me: a young autistic boy committed suicide because he had been bullied to death. I heard his mother express her grief, she said that she would never get over it. I tried to write a story in which things turn out differently.
You wanted to write a reparative work of sorts?
If I had stuck to the facts alone, I would have ended up making a documentary. But I am fascinated by cinema, which should, as Kubrick said, transcend reality. I didn’t want to present suicide as a solution either. The word reparative is too strong, but I certainly wanted, if not to console that mother, at least to show her a little understanding. And what followed was a minor miracle – the book was a success. It touched the teenagers who read it and the story of that mother who tries to protect her son, without realising who the enemy is, struck a chord with their parents.
A young actor wanted to do a solo performance for the theatre. But the problem associated with autism is precisely the issue of speech and language. Then I came up with the idea of a solo performance by several actors: the mother and the teachers would speak about this young boy who is different from the others, while he tried to tell his own story. We surrounded him with lots of music, images from video games, aspects of modern life. I wanted to make theatre accessible to teenagers. We were blessed with a second miracle and over 250 performances were given.
Is Ben X your feature debut?
Yes. Peter Bouckaert, my producer, had the good sense to surround me with very competent people who supported me: my director of photography, my editor... I learned that you need to steer the ship in the right direction, but it’s the team as a whole who make the journey and sail together. And according to Ben’s maxim: "All you have to do is dare".
Would you agree that, beyond the issue of autism, Ben X explores a very human predicament, that of finding one’s place?
I wanted to put across a message about difference and understanding. Unlike many of my film critic colleagues, I’m not cynical! [Laughs] If cinema doesn’t say something about the world in which we live, then what’s the point of this costly business? I feel very proud and I think to myself that cinema can change the world when a young boy of 14 comes up to me and says that he has Asperger’s syndrome like Ben, that he’s going to go and see the film with his classmates and that he’s decided to tell his friends, for the first time, that he suffers from this condition!
But autism is also an allegory. The title of the book was Nothing Was All He Said. There are so many young people who believe they are "worthless", who feel misunderstood and the world tells them nothing. This is the tragedy, I believe, of those who are not attractive when society places such pressure on us. The supremacy of appearances! Everyone experiences this, but young people are the first to be affected by it. Harassment is also a tangible problem in today’s workplace.
Ben X is very rich in terms of structures and images.
Filming in cyberspace was the idea and I’m very pleased with the effect! I wanted to reach out to my viewers, make a film that blew them away, a film they would consider "cool"! And these settings are fantastical; it’s a very poetic world. Ben literally lives in another world, and we had to portray this in the film. That’s what cinema is all about: describing emotions and feelings, using images, not just words.
I also get the impression that youngsters today manage to surf the internet, play, download files and chat, whilst listening to the radio and television all at the same time. The ease with which they zap between all these different ways of seeing the world is fascinating. But there’s a danger that you’ll only half -listen to all of this. We quickly form an opinion, we may be wrong, and then we have to review our assumptions. This fascinates me about film and theatre: when everything is set up so that the viewers put the pieces of the story together themselves whilst knowing they may be wrong. This is also how thrillers work. It’s a dangerous game, you mustn’t overstep the mark where viewers feel they are being manipulated and are angry because of this. You have to try to surprise them, not play tricks on them.