For her dynamic and important film about the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of 22 11-year-olds speaking in 12 different languages, from 15 countries, Genevieve Bailey needed to be her own director, editor, producer, writer, and cinematographer to get the full impact of I Am Eleven to resonate with audiences and kids. It took her six years, but it was worth it. The documentary has garnered awards in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, France, and Spain. Before the film has stopped making the rounds, it will most likely pick up quite a few more.
I Am Eleven should be shown to UN conferences on women and children’s issues, and should certainly be awarded a special prize by UNESCO in its message of the need for women’s and children’s empowerment. Children are on the last rung on the world’s ladder of priorities; they are the expendables. This indie documentary reveals unequivocally that we need to rework our priorities to give children a voice on the world stage and a leg up on another rung of the ladder.
Bailey has captured 11-year-olds at the height of their powers, before they are totally bowed over by the pressures of adolescence and the typical cultural mores and folkways about sex and social groupings in middle school, when the “need” to partner up with someone or to “fit in” is perhaps the most stressful. This age is a precarious turning point before puberty; it is on the brink of the abyss between the last shreds of innocence and the cool knowledge of the cynical, “knowing” teenager. It is no coincidence that Bailey has chosen to interview these randomly selected children at this age.
Again and again, she reveals that in their frankness and unabashed good will and humor, these children and by extension all children have more wisdom and common sense than we give them credit for. In giving them voice to express their opinions about everything, having gleaned their trust, Bailey has proven they are worthy. They should not be silenced by our making them “invisible” or deeming them “ignorant” because they do not understand the world’s “complexity.” They do see the results of adults’ actions that are shaping the world we live in. They have formed cogent opinions; their thoughts have power. The meanings expressed retain great efficacy and transcend national boundaries. By giving these children the opportunity to speak and allowing them to openly respond to her salient questions, Bailey encourages them to dive into the heart of our humanity. They are eloquent as they discuss issues with which we all can identify despite our differences in culture and class, and because of our differences in culture and class.
Finally, in Bailey’s selection of 11-year-olds, we are reminded: who better than a child subjected to the adults’ world system to understand and feel the incomprehensibility of its destitution and desolation? Who better than a child to bounce back with courage, good cheer, hope and light to face another day believing that things will be better? Indeed, who better than children’s voices to listen to in a world of cant and geopolitical squabbles and rhetorical power plays. And that is perhaps the principle reason why Bailey’s I Am Eleven has and will continue to be be an award winner. Anyone with an open heart and a yearning for innocence and simplicity will be struck with the soulfulness of the youngsters’ comments. With this film viewers will be brought back to remembrances of when they were eleven, when they dared to dream and imagine a world for themselves without danger, with love and with a resounding prayer for continued peace and happiness.
Thus, it was after I experienced her powerful film that I was excited interview Genevieve Bailey via email:
To what extent did your prior experience in making short films help with the scope and breadth of I Am Eleven. You took on a daunting task. Did you ever feel overwhelmed or confront major hurdles? What were these and how did you overcome them?
I am glad that I had made so many short fiction films, music videos and short docs as I became extremely comfortable behind the camera. My experience with shorts enabled me to hone my skills in various roles, as a producer, writer, director, editor and cinematographer. As it happened I actually ended up wearing all these hats when making I Am Eleven. I like each role for various reasons. They all present various challenges and I did learn how to jump many hurdles. The kids enabled me to develop a great sense of perspective so even during really tough times, I was able to keep focused on my goals and I never allowed myself to NOT dream big. In true 11-year-old style I continued to believe, “It’s possible!”
You must have shot hours of film after interviewing these children. What helped to determine the editing choices you made? Are there any interviews of children that you decided not to include? Were those difficult decisions? Did others help you in this process?
I shot over 120 hour of footage, which is a huge amount of material to deal with as a first time feature length editor. But I think it could have been worse. I could have had 500 hours! I am actually pretty economical when it comes to shooting, and I can be ruthless in the edit suite when I have to be. At the end of the day we couldn’t present a film that was 6 hours long, even though we did have lots of footage it was hard to say goodbye too. The majority of children filmed were included in the finished film, which I am really happy about. Although I edited it myself, I did a number of test screenings as audience feedback was vital so that the film (and I), could move forward with confidence. I am so focused on audience engagement that I didn’t let my ego get in the way of sharing unfinished work. It can be daunting but I actually love it! I love when we have something to share with others and for them to provide insight to how it feels on screen for them.
Of all the parents you elected to bring in Billy’s father. Were there other parents you also interviewed? Why did you include that portion with Billy’s Dad and not the others? How did that enhance what you were revealing?
When shooting the film the kids always had me on my toes and my focus was very much on them and their views and experiences. I did shoot occasionally with parents but that was not my focus. In the editing process I was conscious that every minute of adult on screen talking was taking away from the kids screen time. So, I made the tough decisions to edit accordingly to allow the kids to really own the story. Billy and his dad have a great relationship and Gary is so proud of his son and the way he has overcome adversity. Billy has autism and the scene I chose to include features him sitting with Gary as he proudly explains that when Billy was a kid, he couldn’t speak or even hold a pencil. Billy has come a long way, and I felt that this scene conveyed Gary’s pride and also provided a little more insight into Billy’s situation. Billy has been an audience favourite all over the world. Kids especially LOVE Billy. They say, “We wanna meet Billy!” Billy loves that people have connected with his story and we are proud to say he is now in College and loving life (as much as we love him)!
What are some of the vital ideas that you would like the audience to come away with from I Am Eleven?
Vital is a great word! I think that is a great way of describing what I would want audiences to come away with, a really honest and clear sense of vitality! For younger audiences I hope they can feel empowered to realize that they matter, and that their voice can and should be shared within their homes, their schools, their community and the world. For adults I hope it reminds them to reconnect with their own inner 11-year-old. That they too were young and curious and open to the world. I think as we grow up we can become more cynical, less curious, more suspicious and more sceptical. I think the children have reminded me and now audiences to be open, to be caring, to dream big and respect others. I also think the film highlights the significant similarities and differences we all share. I like to celebrate what makes us different. As my mum used to say to me when I was a child “If we were all the same life would be pretty boring.”
I could write for days about my lessons learned and the take aways we have heard about so far but these are some of those that I feel strongly about.
Did you learn anything along this film journey that changed your approach to film making or changed how you viewed yourself during this process?
In regard to film making I think my style remains the same. To always focus on ensuring that whoever is in front of my camera is comfortable and able to feel free to express themselves. And, for everyone behind the scenes, we must be having fun. I have become a self-confessed audience fan! I am so focused on creating work that reaches and resonates with audiences. I think I am a different and better person in many ways because of this I Am Eleven journey. I am after all, a giant 11-year-old myself now. Or so I am told!
Tell us about the Darlingheart Foundation. What are your plans for the foundation? How can my readers become involved?
Our plan in establishing the foundation was to have a very real, transparent and direct way of empowering and supporting children and women from disadvantaged communities. We would love to hear from anyone who is interested in finding out more. Please feel free to email [email protected]
Do you have any plans for your next film project and does it involve the Darlingheart Foundation? Do you have any future film projects that will involve the foundation?
Yes I am working on a new film and cannot wait to complete it. I hope it will not take as long as I Am Eleven as I am so eager to present my next work. We will also be doing sequels for I Am Eleven so this will enable us to have long-term relationships with the children (as adults), our audiences and also our work through the foundation