"Ben X": I Am Nothing By Madhu Eravankara

in 27th Istanbul International Film Festival

by Madhu Eravankara

Adapted from a bestseller authored by the director Nic Balthazar himself, Ben X (Belgium) is an extraordinary film which portrays the agony and ecstasy of a mildly autistic teenager, who finds it impossible to make an existence in this inhuman world. The Oscar nominee for Belgium in 2008, Ben X was also instrumental in influencing the production of a successful play, “Niets”, and an online videogame by the title “Arch Lord”.

Ben, the central character of the film, is at his best when he dwells in the world of online computer games. He expresses his masterly expertise in designing games but once he is forced to quit this world, he is a student of a school where nobody cares about him nor understands him. Instead, he is constantly bullied by his classmates and the school authorities fail to keep a track on this. The doctors compete amongst themselves to make contradictory verdicts on his ailment. Only his loving parents and an instructor of the school really care for and love him.

Ben has an internet girl friend, Scarlite, and he loves to watch her smiling face on the computer screen. Two of his classmates, who claim themselves as his ‘best friends’, bully him in the classroom. This goes to the extent of stripping him partially and the whole class enjoys the awful drama. His Arch Lord hero flashes for him in his senses, but is of no practical use. One of his friends shoots the scene in video and hands over the video camera to him. When he watches it on the computer he realizes the gravity of the game and in his fury he devises a plan to change his life and that of his tormentors.

As planned he waits for his ‘best friends’ to take revenge on them, but as usual they overpower and inflict physical torture on him and even snatch his mobile phone where the message of Scarlite was waiting for him. In fact she has sent a message regarding her arrival in the railway station. It is a terrible night for Ben and his parents as he becomes violent. In the morning he manages to reach the station to find Scarlite waiting for him. But he was not courageous enough to appear before her and after so much waiting he notices her leaving the station. Ben boards the same train and eventually they meet and return to his panicking parents.

In his dialogue with his lover he talks about death quite often. But she doesn’t take it seriously. He finds a new interest in video shooting. The film ends with a condolence meeting organized in the school where the principal speaks about the talented Ben followed by a screening of the footage shot by him when he was dying.

Ben X is the directorial debut of the Belgian director Nic Balthazar. The film title refers to the internet jargon “(I) am nothing”. This is the basic philosophy of Ben X too. Ben very rarely expresses himself. His usual answer for any question would be ‘nothing’. It is interesting to note that even Balthazar’s novel is titled “Nothing Was All He Said”. The word ‘nothing’ acquires an unusual dimension in the film when we count Ben’s silence. His hyper activity is manifested only in the form of a computer game. He is not brave enough to resist. This was one reason he was always bullied. The problem with Ben is his partially autistic state so, naturally, people think that he is alright. This would have made his life impossible in this world.

Ben X has a powerful social message. It is a warning to the bullies and the authorities who protect them. The school authorities regret that if the timely intervention would have been there in the case of Ben, things would not have a tragic end. One is not secluded as in an island in our world. Unless the society is caring for you, life would be miserable. You need the concern and the love of people around you. Once you lose it you feel depressed and dejected. This is especially true in the case of partially autistic patients. They expect a lot of love and care from the society. We need films like Ben X to make us think that this universe is looking forward to our kindness and compassion. There are a lot of people who are really in need of our good justice.

No doubt, Ben X is shot with extreme bravery and brilliance. The computer game “Arch Lord” with its animation shots, interspersed with real life shots, give an unusual visual depth to the film. The structure of the narrative is in the form of reminiscences of Ben by his mother, father and an instructor of the school. The director is successful in bringing out the inner self of Ben fully in visual terms. An amazingly well knit script and visual exploration of the time and space coupled with the travel through the inner world of Ben open up new vistas of cinematic experience.