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Vol. 6, No. 5, 2007
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Robert J. Lewis
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Man Without a Past
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Born into Brothels
The Edukators
Big Sugar
A Long Walk
An Inconvenient Truth
Sisters In Law
Send a Bullet
Banking on Heaven
Chinese Botanist's Daugher

Nic Balthazar's

director Nic Balthazar (BEN X)

reviewed by


Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk to you again. Paul Simon

No one was surprised when Nic Balthazar's Ben X, along with Claude Miller's A Secret, won the coveted Grand Prix of Americas for best film at the 2007 version of the Montreal World Film Festival.

Ben X is a weighty film that deals with the malfunctions of the mind in the context of harassment, bullying and 21st century cyber space.

The director, Nic Balthazar, former thespian, was asked to write a book for youngsters who weren't readers. He became interested in an adolescent who committed suicide jumping off the Chateau de Contes in Ghent (Belgium). After speaking at length with the boy’s mother, he wrote a book about it, then a play, and finally directed the award winning film.

Ben X is described as mildly autistic. For many of us, our understanding of autism was informed by the film The Rain Man (1988) with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. We think of autistic persons being incapable of responding to human feeling and emotion.

Is Ben X even mildly autistic?

The film suggests the diagnosis is more a convenience than working fact. Ben X can’t express his thoughts and feelings. He finds sanctuary in the video game entitled Archlord. But the social equilibrium provided by the game is no match against the relentless harassment he is subjected to at school. Since Ben can’t express himself, the degree of harassment is never suspected. And where you’d expect the psychiatrist to know Ben’s mind, there is indictable ignorance. One is tempted to propose a law that predicts an inverse relationship between a person’s silence and active fantasy life. No one, not even Ben’s caring and loving Mother, is adequate to his extended silences and anguish, which he sublimates in cyberspace. And no one suspects him of developing real feelings for a real girl that he has arranged to meet in real life – hardly a trait of autism.

Balthazar, whose feet are firmly planted in the realities of the 21st century, handles with great aplomb and sensitivity Ben’s fragile state of mind and the collective mind of the bully. He introduces us to happy slapping and cyber violence. The film provides fresh and disturbing insights into Ben’s suppressed inner feelings, anger, frustration and despair. And whether or not Ben is autistic is to miss the point: the film insists that we need to better understand and take account of the diversity that exists in every human being.

Like all films that linger productively in the mind, the ending invites a variety of interpretations on Ben’s fate, for when all is said and done, there is a little bit of Ben and the bully in each and every one of us, just as there is no escaping the cause and effect of the choices we make in life.

The movie features a compelling, geist-right sound track that includes excerpts from the music of dEUS and the beautifully haunting voice of Tom Barman.


Postscript to the 2007 Montreal World Film Festival

Even during hard times, when it comes to the silver screen there is always a silver lining. There was a time when the Montreal World Film Festival was ranked as one of the most prestigious in the world. After surviving budget insults and body blows from the new competition on the block, it’s now fighting hard to regain its former eminence.

This year, along with several high profile directors, the festival attracted Jon Voight and France’s Sophie Marceau. As usual, the boss, Serge Losique, went with films of substance – i.e. hard times for a festival usually mean the best of times for films that would otherwise get overlooked; not for their quality but the lack of marketing. This year, there were an exceptional number of worthwhile films that will probably never see commercial light of day, but films which Serge Losique and his competent team felt deserved to be among those vying for top prizes. Among those quietly affecting films move goers should make a point of seeing are Eduart (Angeliki Antoniou), That Day (Jacob Berger), Postman in Shangri-La (Yu Zhong), Ben X (Nic Balthazar), The Secret (Claude Miller), Finn’s Girl (Dominique Cordon), La Logique Du Remords (Martin Laroche), Surviving My Mother (Emile Gaudrault), Toi (Francois Delisle) and The Other Boy (Volker Einrauch).

Perhaps the biggest surprise came from the documentary category. Films such as Dalai Lama Renaissance by Khashyar Darrich, Francis-Anne Solomon’s Winter’s Tale, and Confessions of an Innocent Man by David Perperny received spontaneous applause and the highest critical praise.

It’s to Serge Losique’s credit that even in the best of times he refuses to run a biggest hits film fest because he knows there are great films being made everywhere in the world and audiences hungry for them. The line-ups continue to confirm that intuition as fact – just as it’s a fact that the Montreal World Film Festival is back in the game.

For A & O ratings of most of the films, click HERE.


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