Do you remember when you were eleven?
Australian filmmaker Genevieve Bailey travelled the world for six years talking with 11-year-olds to compose this insightful, funny and moving documentary portrait of childhood. From an orphanage in India, to a single-parent household in inner-city Melbourne, to bathing with elephants in Thailand, ‘I Am Eleven‘ explores the lives and thoughts of children from 15 countries. I AM ELEVEN weaves together deeply personal and at times hilarious portraits of what it means to sit at this transitional age. These young minds provide us with a powerful insight into the future of our world.
These children share their thoughts on a range of subjects such as love, war, global warming, music, terrorism, culture, family, happiness, religion and the future. Each of their situations allows a single glimpse into a young mind, and combine to provide a powerful insight into the future of our world. As straight up and personal as the ’7 Up’ series, and with the comedy and honesty of ‘Spellbound,’ this documentary enables us to explore an age where these ‘not quite kids, not quite teenagers’ briefly linger, between the frank openness and sometimes naivety of childhood, and the sharp and surprisingly brave wisdom and knowing of adulthood. As much as it is a story about them, it is a story with them, of what it is like to be eleven today.
David Teich spoke with Genevieve Bailey about the oft-overlooked complexity of children, DIY filmmaking, and much more.
“I Am Eleven” is now playing in select NY theaters, with premieres in many more U.S. cities to follow. Look up showtimes – here.
What do you find fascinating about eleven-year-olds?
Eleven is an age when you’re full of hope and optimism. You’re very curious about the world. You don’t feel like a little
kid anymore, but you don’t feel like a teenager yet. I’ve always had respect for people who are younger than me…A lot of filmmakers in their twenties focus on making films about people their own age. But I just wanted to do the opposite. I didn’t want to make a film about people who were just like me. I wanted to learn something, and be inspired.
When did you know that this going to be an international project, and how did you find your subjects?
I knew straightaway that rather than just shooting in my own backyard in Australia, I would love to have an international perspective. I’d actually never left Australia. As for finding the kids, I decided early on, especially in places where I didn’t speak the language, that I would go to schools. But then I realized that was a bad idea, because the schools would just offer up the brightest kids or the kids who have acting experience. I didn’t want there to be another adult filtering the process, because I thought it would be great to find a random selection of children. So I hit the streets and marketplaces, places where families were, bookstores. I asked people if they knew anyone who was eleven, and I started finding such wonderful personalities.
The production lasted six years. When you started, did you realize how long you would be working on this?
I don’t think I knew it was going to take as long as it did. [Laughs]…I decided I could either make the film smallish, or I could make it as big as I possibly dreamed it to be. I went with the second option.
How did you fund the production?
[Co-producer] Henrik [Nordstrom] and I didn’t pursue any funding or grants, we didn’t have rich parents, we just invested everything we had. We worked several jobs at a time to save up to purchase airfares. It was very DIY, very indie.
Was it important to you to capture these kids doing things that they liked, as opposed to just talking?
Yeah, absolutely. I think people usually have something they’re really into by the time they’re eleven. So aside from questions about love, war, religion, family, the environment, and politics, I had a whole section that was just about the kids being themselves—whether that was [showing the kids] at a Swedish rap school, or riding an elephant in Thailand, or dancing in front of a bedroom mirror for hours. I feel very pleased every time someone tells me
that the kids come across naturally in the film. I think we see a lot of depictions of children where they’re not able to feel particularly at ease. And usually they’ve been directed quite heavily.
What are some ways you tried to keep them comfortable?
For one thing, I tried to make sure they didn’t feel pressure. In one country, the translator was saying, “Just remember, you’re representing your country.” I said, “No no no, she’s just representing herself.” How could anyone speak on behalf of a whole nation? These were personal responses. We weren’t trying trying to sum up what it’s like to be Bulgarian, or Chinese, or Australian.
So did you ever worry—for instance, when you interviewed a girl living at an Indian orphanage—that adults might coach the kids or manipulate their interviews?
Fortunately there were never any times where I was worried that was happening. But I definitely wasn’t naïve to the possibility. Any time there was an adult off camera who was trying to encourage the child to be more outspoken or something like that, I stopped it. They had to be comfortable. If I were being interviewed and I didn’t feel comfortable, I wouldn’t sound like me, I wouldn’t look like me…There weren’t any cases where I felt like the kids really didn’t want any part of it, and that was important to me.
Your French subject, Remi, has some pretty complex thoughts about bigotry and environmentalism. Has his sophistication at such a young age ever surprised people who have seen the film?
When people watch the film, they often say, “Is Remi really eleven? Are you sure?” We actually screened the film in France, and I reunited with Remi, which thrilled me. He was sixteen and his dad and sisters came. I told his dad, “Most of my friends who are becoming parents are asking, what did you do to give Remi such a sense of humanity?” And his dad just sort of laughed it off and said, “Oh, Remi’s just Remi. He doesn’t think that he’s particularly unique. He says all children care about these things.”
Had Remi changed at all?
As a sixteen-year-old, I couldn’t have expected that he’d be as articulate and caring as he was when he was eleven—but he’s exactly the same. He has facial hair now, but he still has his ideas. And when I told him what some of the audience feedback had been like, he said he wants people to know that his ideas really are his ideas. He doesn’t want people to think that he’s just a parrot for his father.
Of course, people do tend to be shaped by their parents. Remi, for instance, grew up in an environmentally conscious household that used solar panels. When you interviewed eleven-year-olds, to what degree did you judge their thoughts to have been formed independently of their parents?
Of course we’re all products of our environment, and who we spend the most time with. And when you’re eleven it’s usually you’re parents. Remi, for example, learned from a young age to appreciate things that a lot of kids are not particularly aware of. But with some of the kids, when they talked with me about social and environmental issues, their parents would tell me afterwards, “I didn’t even know she had an opinion on that.” It was nice to come in as a stranger and give these kids a platform to express these ideas.
Do you think a lot of people don’t realize that children have complex and independent thoughts on issues?
Absolutely. I’ve learned that from making the film, and from distributing and releasing it. Many people have said, “I had no idea that kids felt like that.” A lot of older people will say to me, “If you’d interviewed me when I was eleven, I wouldn’t have had anything to say.” Some people are a bit reductive before they see the film. They say things like, “What could an eleven-year-old have to say about anything? That they like Beyoncé?” They can’t imagine that eleven-year-olds would have any complex ideas about universal things. That’s why I’m always so glad when those people see the film and realize that these kids are a lot like them.
What do you think has changed since those people were kids?
Some people say that, back in the day, children were supposed to be seen and not heard. Even now, we focus so much on what adults can teach kids, the wisdom that we can impart upon them. But I think that in many cultures, especially in the West, adults are now listening to young people and their concerns. That’s important.
What are some of the ways you’ve found eleven-year-olds around the world to be similar, even when they come from very different backgrounds?
They have a lot of energy and openness. And they have a sense of curiosity about the world. They have a lack of ego, but also a sense of ambition, in terms of working toward a goal. At eleven, the kids I talked to had a sense that whatever it was that they wanted to do, whether it was becoming a teacher or a
pilot or a singer—it was possible. I think that at eleven there’s a sense of hope and clarity about what you’re striving for. It might sound cheesy, but at eleven, you’re not scared of what makes you different.
Do you think people lose that as they get older?
I personally never went through the teen angst phase, and hopefully it doesn’t hit me now that I’m in my thirties. [Laughs.] But I think that a lot of the time teenage years become more complicated. People sometimes become more insular, or more worried about acting or looking cool. There was one kid who I went back to see when she was sixteen, and all she wanted to do was show me Youtube videos she had edited together about her favorite movie stars and things like that. She was so happy about them. I mean, I’m not criticizing her. But when she was eleven, she was really looking at the world…I think it’s normal when you’re a teenager to become more reflective of the self. When you’re a teenager, you tend to think you’re in the most pivotal time of your life. I’ve had teenagers tell me, “You should make a film about sixteen-year-olds, we’re so interesting.”
The film industry tends to agree—there are a lot more movies about teenagers than younger kids.
Yeah, with fiction films especially—coming-of-age dramas, or college comedies for example. They’re often based on teenagers. One of my favorite comments about my film came from an audience-member who was about fourteen. He said, “That was really good, it was the first film I’ve seen with real actors in it.” [Laughs]. He just meant real people. But I guess he was very used to seeing things like ‘Twilight’ or ‘Harry Potter,’ where kids have some sort of power. He was just happy to see kids being themselves.
You edited the film yourself. What were some of the themes you wanted to zero in on during that process?
I wanted to make sure the themes I focused on were acceptable for audiences of different age groups, and also different cultures. I made sure to explore family, war, religion, the future, and love. I had so much footage on love, I could have made an hour-long film about just that. But I had to be really strict and keep the film moving. I guess what I’ve done is very unconventional. There are about twenty-five kids in the film. I spoke to a director who said, “Oh wow, you’re jumping from kid to kid. If you just kept four kids, you could just do it in chapters—Child One, Child Two, Child Three, Child Four. What you’re doing is not commercial. I don’t know if you’re going to reach people.” I’ve already seen enough films like that, so I’m glad I took the risk…I think sometimes filmmakers are encouraged to underestimate what audiences can absorb. As if it would be so confusing to see more than four characters. I don’t want to dumb down my work.
As you’ve mentioned, you’ve stayed in touch with a number of the kids. How many of them are, like Remi, still similar to their eleven-year-old selves?
Quite a few of them are doing exactly what they said they wanted to do when they were eleven. Grace, who was in the Czech Republic, had said, “I’d like to end up living in the U.K., and I’d like to be studying creative writing and drama at college.” And she’s now living in the U.K., studying creative writing and drama at college. Oliver, from Manhattan, is still doing ballet dancing, which was what he was really passionate about at eleven…It’s great to have documented these kids at that age. Quite a few of them say to me, “I wouldn’t have remembered all that stuff if you hadn’t filmed me.” It’s kind of like a time capsule for them.
— Interview conducted, transcribed, and edited by David Teich