Nic Balthazar’s film, based on his own novel, is about the difficulties of being different in a society that values conformity, and sometimes punishes those who don’t fit in. Ben is a young man with a condition called Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. People with this condition have problems relating to others and tend to respond literally to other people’s conversation – they cannot understand sarcasm, for instance.
Ben is bullied by his fellow students at school because of his difficulties in understanding the world around him. The adults, parents and school staff seem powerless to intervene. His only comfort is within the world of online games where, in his favourite game called Archlord, he has made a friend of a player called Scarlite. He is desperate to meet her but lacks the confidence to make this happen. However, Scarlite turns up in Ben’s life, supports him and turns him away from thoughts of suicide, by suggesting to him a way of beating the bullies who persist in making his life a misery.
Ben X, which is a subtitled Belgian film with dialogue in Flemish, came to the BBFC for classification in April 2008. The main issues for classification were themes of suicide and bullying, and strong language. BBFC examiners also had to consider the violence seen on Ben’s computer as part of the Archlord game, Ben’s making a small dagger to use on his tormentors, and moderate sex references.
The presence of a suicide theme in a film which is likely to appeal to young people needs careful handling. Few young people get through their school lives without being subjected to some form of bullying, and it would be very irresponsible to suggest that suicide is the best way to deal with the situation, or to invest suicide with a kind of glamour.
For Ben, who is helpless and does not have the social skills to retaliate, avoid or confide in anyone, the situation is miserable. Two classmates in particular set out to humiliate him, even to the extent at one point of force-feeding him an Ecstasy tablet. When Ben contemplates suicide, clutching a shard of glass so hard that he cuts his hand, Scarlite comes to the rescue and briskly discusses with him the drawbacks of the various methods he’s considering. She mocks his more romantic ideas, setting out for him in discouraging detail the less attractive consequences of the methods he proposes. “Or you could hang yourself. You die with a huge erection…but then you shit yourself. They always find little bits of rope and skin under the fingernails of those who hang themselves ...”.
Examiners felt that the frankness of this discussion and the treatment of this sensitive issue was suitable for young people of 15 years and above, and that there was no sense that suicide was being presented as either romantic, or the solution to Ben’s problems. In fact, with Scarlite’s help, Ben finds another way of defeating the bullies.
The treatment of discussions about suicide is in line with BBFC Guidelines for ’imitable techniques’ at 15 in that there are no details offered – other than details which set out the unpleasant reality of taking your own life. Where explicit detail of suicide which might be copied is presented on screen, as in Tracey Emin’s film Top Spot, an 18 is likely to result. Similarly, if suicide is presented as attractive or romanticised, as in Suri Krishnamma’s film New Year's Day, the film is likely to get an 18.
The bullying to which Ben is subjected takes various forms – he is called ‘faggot’ and ‘retard’, and he suffers humiliation in front of the class when the bullies force him to strip and encourage classmates to use their mobiles to film him. The film is later posted on the Internet. He is forced to swallow what seems to be an Ecstasy tablet, he is slapped around and his mobile phone and watch are stolen.
The film’s clear condemnation of these activities makes the 15 appropriate. At 15, Guidelines state that “no theme is prohibited, provided the treatment is appropriate to 15 year olds.’
The language Guidelines at 15 allow for strong language. At one point a bully says: “F**k off, faggot,” to Ben. Other abusive language ('retard') is covered by the 15 category.
One of Ben’s defence mechanisms for counteracting the bullying is to visualise himself as a hero figure in the online game Archlord. We see characters in combat and the occasional bloody injury like those that occur frequently in combat games classified at 15 where strong violence is permitted, provided it does not dwell on the infliction of pain or injury. In real life, Ben makes a small dagger in his craft class, but he uses it only to wave at the bullies in self-defence before they overcome him.
Ben X was rated 15 and was selected for National Schools Film Week 2008.