Friday, November 21, 2008
Ben-X -- autism, bullying and revenge
Director: Nic Balthazar, 2007.
I rarely get angry when watching a movie. But Ben-X was an exception. I was so engrossed in the movie that I totally sympathized with the protaganist Ben, so that when he was ruthlessly bullied I wanted justice or vengeance. My fists were clenched, my stomach was tight, and I could not pull away.
First-time screenwriter and director Balthazar created a story with punch. Subtitled in English, this Flemish movie was the official entry from Belgium at this year's Oscars. Though it did not win, it won 6 awards at other film festivals, including Montreal.
Ben is a young man with Asperger's Syndrome, a brain disorder and form of autism. This condition has in part led to the his parents' divorce. Because autism carries with it both behavioral and emotional difficulties, Ben stands out as "different" at school. And in a large public school, different is not what you want to be. It is clear he is not "normal." And several bullies pick on him ruthlessly while the rest of the class participates in this ongoing humiliation of Ben.
The fine acting of Greg Timmermans, also making his debut in feature films, combines with the exceptional cinematography to enable the viewer to really feel the frustration and pain of a sufferer of severe autism. Although language and cognitive development is not hindered, as is communicated in Ben's excellent grades, autism manifests itself in difficulties in social interactions, minimized verbal communications, limited empathy, and obsessive or repetitive behaviors. Since eye contact is impaired, the camera frequently focuses on lips, side-burns, or random objects when Ben does talk. And when it does so, it does not hold still, but moves jarringly as his eyes would, with some distortion thrown in. (This is a little like the camera work in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, another foreign movie dealing with limitations.) Further, Ben's aversion to noise is clear in his physical mannerisms. The soundtrack when he is in the presence of normal noise such as traffic is grating and discordant, further communicating the isolation that Ben experiences.
Ben-X helped me, in some degree, "get inside the head" of an autistic teen. I have a relative in this situation and up till now have not understood what it meant to have this disorder. Though she only has a mild case, I am now able to better appreciate the difficulty that she faces in her studies, her relationships. It also explain some of the relational issues of her pre-teen years.
As the plot develops, we see some of the bullying that Ben experienced in his younger years. Clearly, he has had it rough. But it is at the hands of two"normal" bullies Desmet (Maarten Claeyssens) and Bogaert (Titus De Voogdt) that he is pushed over the edge. The bullying intensifies until it reaches a particularly mean incident in front of the whole classroom, and then beyond. Humiliated and angry, Ben still won't communicate to the teachers or principal.
An intriguing part of the story is that Ben, inept and awkward in real life, is a macho hero in an on-line role-playing game that he plays daily. In this virtual reality that he escapes to he can recreate himself to be whoever he wants. And in doing so, he has attained a level of power and superiority, and has found a girlfriend/princess. Indeed, the beginning of the movie plays like the start of a video game, with clever credits coming up as entry points into Ben's other world. What he cannot feel in reality he can feel in cyberspace.
After the major bullying incident, Ben descends a path that is dark and dangerous. He cannot get real help from anyone. He is literally helpless. Yet, his avatar has the strength and strategic wisdom to seek revenge. And his virtual princess encourages him on that path. As the climax approaches, Balthazar blurs the real and the virtual with creative cinematography, including some stop-action scenes, so that it is evident that Ben does not know which world he is in. With some of the major characters giving comments to the camera, as though this were a documentary, reflecting on an event not yet happened, it is apparent that something very bad will occur at the climax. Visions of recent catastrophes at school come to mind, but Ben-X keeps us guessing and engaged right to the end.
Ben-X is a social commentary on bullying and its consequences. It is also educational on autism. To torment someone for being different is ethically wrong. It is not that person's fault to have a disorder. Treating him as a retard, as the antagonists in the film label Ben, is an attempt to elevate one's own importance and value by demeaning another. Yet, all people, including those with mental or social disorders, are still humans made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26) with inherent value and dignity. It is distasteful to see a person dehumanized by such bullying and this provoked my anger throughout the film.
Worse in a way than the bullies perhaps, were those who stood by apathetic or even cheering them on. These people were sheep not willing to stand up for Ben but instead following the bullies. Am I willing to stand up for someone being harassed or bullied? Or do I go along with the crowd? How will I combat even implicit bullying that surfaces in situations in my life? I can and must fight against this form of injustice.
Finally, Ben-X raises a key question about revenge. Is it ever OK to seek personal revenge? Paul, in Romans 12:19, addresses this question directly: "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord." We are to leave justice to God, who will often use government entities to perpetrate such justice (Rom. 13). Yet what do we do when even the governing authorities won't intervene? Taking the law into our own hands, like Charles Bronson in Death Wish or Jodie Foster in The Brave One, becoming judge, jury and executioner combined is obviously wrong. But as we see Ben's fateful act, I wonder if this could be an acceptable form of revenge, a true bringing to justice, even leaving room for God's wrath.
Ben-X left me feeling wrung out, but gave me a deeper appreciation for those with autism and a deeper aversion to bullying. When was the last time a Hollywood movie left you feeling that way!
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
at 7:00 AM