Computers are used more and more to give the illusion that a director filmed in some impossible location — a distant point in history, a place on the globe where bringing a movie crew would be either difficult or dangerous, or some place that’s only existed in mythology or imagination. Nic Balthazar’s film Ben X might be one of the first films that takes its cameras, so to speak, into landscapes meant only to exist in computers — the world created for a multi-player role-playing video game, with its strangely ethereal ground and plastic skies.
It’s the world where the film’s protagonist, a teenage misfit suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, prefers to live, as a refuge from the bullying he suffers at school. Technology turns on him, however, when his classmates’ camera phones capture his humiliation at the hands of his tormentors and the video ends up online in mere hours, denying him his last safe haven.
The Internet, Balthazar says, “has taken bullying to another level, and has given birth to this phenomenon — the name itself is so sarcastic — of ‘happy slapping.’ For Christ’s sake. It shows how premeditated this sort of evil can be, because we always associate bullying with ‘Oh, well, it’s just teasing, it’s a joke and maybe it got out of hand.’ We see how you have to hit or degrade someone in public, and then start filming it, and then upload it and download it and send links around, so maybe it never was the joke that people said it was.
“So that’s where technology reveals our true nature, and shows how bad we can be, because everybody’s watching it — these are the most clicked-on films on YouTube. Only this week there were these five girls beating up this one girl just to be on YouTube. If you were to write this in a screenplay everyone would say you’re overdoing it a bit.”
The success of his film, and the book on which it’s based, is taking Balthazar to Hollywood, where there’s talk of an American version of the story. It’s an adaptation that shouldn’t be so difficult, considering the homogeneity of youth culture around the world, unified by communication technology into a place where the same movies, music and games are shared literally overnight by a community who have bypassed conventional media and the old, physical model of buying and selling goods. The gaming community in particular has responded to Ben X with positive word of mouth though, inevitably, little in the way of actual ticket sales.
“You need to hand them this,” Balthazar says, “within gamer culture, they’re very quick and smart, and good at saying, ‘This is a cool game’ and ‘This isn’t a cool game,’ and you can be dead in five days before the reviews are even out. A lot of films have been made from successful games, and if the gaming community doesn’t like it, you’re dead in the water. I’m happy to say that they’ve helped us so much, because, of course, we first came out without a promotional campaign, and they passed on the word, and said that this was the first film that was cool about gaming and showed it the way it is.”