A new documentary probes the special moral clarity of 11-year old children.
Goh, from the film I am Eleven. Photo By Henrik Nordstrom
I Am Eleven, a new documentary by Australian filmmaker Genevieve Bailey, takes us through six years and 15 countries and into the minds of the world’s 11-year-old kids. Somewhere in between childhood wonder and teenage angst, the film’s young subjects, described by the filmmaker as full of “hope, a clarity of expression, and openness,” talk about subjects like global warming and poverty with the kind of earnestness that only children exhibit. The film, in limited release in New York and San Francisco this month, provides unique, vivid, and at times heartbreaking insight into the effects of racial segregation and economic disparity.
The film has won a number of international awards since its premiere in 2011 and has screened at film festivals in the U.S., Brazil, Spain, and France. The film is Bailey’s first feature documentary; the children she met while filming I Am Eleven later inspired her to found the Darlingheart Foundation, working to empower women and children from disadvantaged communities. Below Bailey talks about her filmmaking journey.
What inspired the idea for I Am Eleven?
When I was 23, I started working in the newsroom of a major newspaper in Melbourne. The Boxing Day tsunami had just hit, killing over 200,000 people across Asia, and on my very first day on the job I was confronted by images of devastation and loss.
A year later, I took time off work to go overseas for the very first time. I was depressed: I had recently been in a serious car accident and my dad had passed away from cancer. I didn’t want to lie on a beach somewhere; instead, I wanted to shoot a film in every country I went to. I wanted to make something energetic, optimistic, universal, and real. I thought back to my favorite age in life, when the world feels big in a good way. For me, that was when I was 11. I wondered, are kids at 11 still happy and excited about inheriting this crazy world? Are they still having as much fun as I did when I was that age?
What’s so significant about this transitional age, do you think?
I remember 11 as being a time where I felt that things were possible. There was this idea of dreaming big and thinking outside the box about my life and the lives of others. I was curious and compassionate. As I shot the film, I realized that regardless of where these children were living, the diverse economic, social and cultural environments, what they all shared was a sense of hope, a clarity of expression and openness. Adults sometimes lose some of these qualities. I think one of the reasons the film resonates so much with such diverse audiences is because we can all relate to being that age.
How did you find the kids in the first place, and did you run into any major problems while filming in these different places around the world?
When I started I had so much confidence and belief in this idea that I set off on my first international flight with nothing but a new video camera and a lot of faith. It was important for me to seek these children out in very organic and spontaneous ways. I quickly decided not to approach schools to find kids because I was concerned that teachers may nominate the smart kids—the most outgoing ones with acting experience. I wanted to avoid this. So I would hit the streets, walk for hours, talk to locals, approach people in marketplaces, in bookstores, and other random and adventurous ways. I was so intrigued by these children I was meeting early on that I decided to stick with this method, even though it was, at times, challenging.
What was the biggest challenge you faced making this film?
It was challenging to produce the film without film funding, grants, or a wealthy family. Henrik [Nordstrom, who produced the film with Bailey] and I would work several jobs each year to ensure we could afford to travel, then return to Australia and work more to save up.
What did you learn while making the film? Did you walk away with a deeper understanding of youth and innocence?
I joke that I learned more making this film than what I did at school. Really, this has been the biggest learning experience of my life: to see the world, to gain a very solid sense of what community means around the world, and to see what perspective and resilience means. It has all influenced me in ways that will never leave me. I think society often focuses on what adults can teach kids, rather than encouraging people to think about what young people can teach us.
What has the reception to the film been like around the world? Have you found a significant difference in how people in different cultures have reacted to it?
We have screened in over 20 countries now. Some of the reactions from young people that have really stood out and have stuck with me are things like, “Wow that was the first time I saw a movie with real actors in it!" Older audiences, often parents and grandparents, comment on how the film enabled them to not only go back in time and reflect on their own childhood, but also to feel more connected to the young people in their lives. Some have said things like, “If only the world was run by 11-year-olds.”
What about the kids in the film--have they seen it? How did they react? Do you still keep in touch?
Yes, many of the kids have seen the film. Some are embarrassed by what they wore or how their hair looked but all of them are glad they were in it, and they are also proud to be part of such a global project that has captured them as a point in time they remember so fondly. I love keeping in touch with these kids, they feel like nieces and nephews. A few of the children, some who live in remote areas of China and Morocco, are harder to contact; for example, we haven’t been able to reach Siham [from Morroco] because she has no email, no phone and no electricity. But one day I will track her down.
And finally, what are your own memories of being 11 years old?
I remember being very passionate about my Boston terriers, soccer, tap dancing, Michael Jackson, and the environment. In fact, one of my teachers from back when I was 11 actually attended the world premiere of the film. I bumped into her in the bathroom afterwards and she told me, "That whole film is you, it is you when you were 11." That was a funny thing to hear. I think what she meant was that the energy, optimism, openness, and the hope these children shared around the world reminded her of me back then.
I hope I can remain a giant 11-year-old at heart forever. I can say that with confidence after seeing the world through their eyes for so many years!