entertainment

How a 14-year-old boy took over Australia's biggest film festival.

Meet Ben.

Ben is a 14-year-old boy with no interest in playing handball at lunch, or rugby on the weekends.

In Ben’s own words, he “loves filming and movies”.

His special interest is Back to the Future, and he has a knack for impersonations.

When Ben talks about movies, he speaks with the confidence of a seasoned academic.

Ben also has autism.

Tonight, after much ado, Tropfest will screen in Sydney’s Centennial Park.

It is the world’s largest short film festival, where 16 finalists will have their films broadcast live to an audience of at least 100,000 people across Australia.

‘Ben’s Filming the Movie’ is one of the finalists, and 14-year-old Benjamin Howard is the star.

Ben acting in his movie. Image supplied.

The films will be judged by a panel of industry heavyweights, including Mel Gibson, Simon Baker and Rebecca Gibney.

But back to Ben.

Ben goes to school in Sydney’s West as part of ASPECT, a leading service provider for people on the autism spectrum. His teacher, Mr Alex Rowe, passionately believes that drama is a powerful way to help young people with autism.

Alex says that drama “enhances social and group collaboration skills, and allows creative exploration using voice and physicality”. He argues that the number one priority for young people with autism should be social skills, as it prepares them for life after school.

Ben Howard performing with teacher Alex Rowe. Image supplied.

Rowe’s background is in drama, and in 2012, he started Big Fish Drama Studio, with the mission to “strengthen self esteem, self-confidence and social skills…with the exploration of imagination through drama”.

It is nothing short of serendipitous that in 2015, movie-buff Ben became one of Rowe’s small group of students. In September 2015, Alex invited his friend Jackson Gallagher to watch Ben perform. Gallagher is a film maker, and along with Andrea Browne, the three of them embarked on Ben’s dream project.

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There was no story board. There was no title. There was no plan. This was Ben’s movie.

Ben brainstormed what the title of the film should be. Poster for ‘Ben’s Filming the Movie’. Image supplied.

Filming began four weeks out from the Tropfest deadline.

Gallagher filmed, make up artists from Channel 7 volunteered, music by Patrick James and James Ballard was provided at no cost, and the film was edited by Josh Groom – again, for free. At Friday night’s Tropfest Craft Awards, Josh Groom won best editing. People were willing to help, because so many of them had been personally touched by autism.

In Alex Rowe’s words, it is the story of “a boy who just happens to have a special interest in drama and movies, and what it does for him as a person”.

Ben having his make up done by professional make up artists. Image supplied.

What is truly remarkable about this project is that it isn’t a film about disability.

Too often our stories about difference are told by those far removed from the individuals they represent. This is not a film about Ben and his autism. This is Ben’s movie, the script and the content is dictated by him, and its richness and integrity hinges on the relationship he shares with the filmmakers.

This project is empowering rather than exploitative, and focuses on ability rather than ‘disability’.

Brilliant films, such as this one, challenge the way we see the world. And this is one of the many reasons why the Tropfest film festival is culturally indispensable.

For tonight, Ben has his outfit planned. He will be wearing a shirt, elastic jeans, and vans. Because “vans are going out shoes”.

He will walk the red carpet, mingle with some of the biggest names in the Australian film industry, and the ultimate goal is to get a photograph with Mel Gibson.

No doubt, Gibson will be starstruck.

Director Jackson Gallagher, actor Benjamin Howard, and producer Alex Rowe. Image supplied.

Because Ben is not his autism. Ben is a superstar.

Tropfest starts tonight at 7:30 at Centennial Park.

You can read more about Jackson Gallagher and his projects that matter at Adalane Projects.

You can read more about Alex Rowe’s Big Fish Drama Studio’s here.

To support Tropfest, visit their crowdfunding page.

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