Eleven years old! Do you remember when you were eleven, what you thought: your dreams, your expectations of life, your joys and sadnesses? It is an age where there can be innocence and the mixed blessing of not realizing the fullness of the responsibility of adulthood waiting just around the corner. Eleven is the age that director Genevieve Bailey chose to demonstrate on a global stage by canvassing and filming the lives, emotions, and thoughts of 22 children in 15 countries who spoke in 12 different languages in her award winning documentary film, I Am Eleven.
Eleven-year-olds? What were their attitudes about love, life, youth, marriage, religion, and growing up? Where and how did they live? How honest would these kids be in an interview? Would the filmmaker be able to make them feel comfortable enough to express their inner wisdom and truth, the essence that is masked in adulthood by layers of experience and the social veneers of defensive protection? When Bailey embarked on her 6 year journey around the world filming and speaking to children whose one common denominator was that they were 11-years-old, she didn’t know the answers to these questions. Much of her experience was serendipitous. We are fortunate that her courage and risk taking led her on this journey for what she has produced in this jewel of a film is both shatteringly beautiful and poignantly real.
Bailey’s strength is in her selection of children and her ability to create an atmosphere of acceptance to allow them to swim in comfortable emotional waters without the need for restraint, even though we understand that her hand as editor has shaped the overall work and the themes she presents. Each of the children from the US, the UK, Bulgaria, China, Germany, India, etc., demonstrates a frank openness and humor that belies the effort and time she took to cultivate their trust.
The children were chosen randomly by Bailey and their background spans a variety of economic classes as well as cultures. For Sree Kutty in India, it was the first time experiencing an interview and seeing foreigners. Oliver from the US is a ballet dancer, something he acknowledged is unique for someone his age. Remi from France considered himself a “citizen of the world,” labeling as “absurd” people who “differentiate between humans depending upon race.” Jamira, who is Aboriginal, expressed how she enjoyed being “special” and “different to everyone else” in Australia. Goh who is in Thailand takes care of elephants and rides them. Siham from Morocco expressed her desire to be “someone,” a teacher or a nurse. And Billy from the UK with unassuming and unabashed wisdom distilled his perception of life: “…when you’re an adult your voice changes again and then you get married to the woman you love and then you get children and grandchildren and then boom, it all ends.”
Bailey has done a masterful job of editing, unifying the children’s points of view around categories revealing their similarities and their divergences. With her close-ups, she creates an intimacy which focuses us toward the inner identities of these children so we are able to empathize with them on a very basic level despite our age differences. As we see them play in their unique environs amongst their own treasures or lack of them in their own dwellings, we are drawn to strip away the cumbersome attitudes that separate us and for a few moments we return us to a time when were we young and there was the simple brilliance of our own humanity shining down on us. In this stripping of contrivances and maintaining an austere cinematic simplicity, Bailey’s work is genius. Because she has pared away and kept to the basics, I Am Eleven thematically reminds us about what fundamentally matters to all of us on this planet. The film encourages us to always recognize the great and mysterious paradox of varying cultures, societies and religions: we are very different, but we all are the same within. Essentially, we yearn to live in harmony within and without.
Perhaps the greatest endeavor that Bailey has accomplished is that she has given these eleven year olds the opportunity to recognize the power of their own voice and the importance of their ability to express their thoughts apart from adult interference. Bailey has kept the adult interchanges to a minimum and in the one instance that she has included an adult discussing a child, the result is extremely revelatory about the relationship between the two. (I will not ruin this for you as you look for it). These scenes are accomplished with great good will and humor with an underlying pathos. The lens captures; it is what it is.
In focusing only on the children’s viewpoints at this age before their plunge into puberty and adult mayhem, Bailey has exposed our hypocritical polemic: we often claim that “the children are our future” while we behave completely counter to that reality in our policies and economic priorities. By giving them voice, Bailey underscores that our children globally carry the weight of our mistakes and madnesses on their shoulders for the rest of their lives. What we are bequeathing to them is especially unjust for they did not come into this world at their pleasure, but at ours. Oftentimes, the blows and miseries that we have been dealt are being passed onto them like the game of “hot potato.” They will be “caught” and punished for our malevolence and inability to work through ours and the previous generations’ issues.
One cannot watch this film and miss this message, whether or not that was Bailey’s intention. In her revelation of this diverse group of youngsters we “get” that they are making a unique and immeasurable contribution to our understanding of what values we should all uphold. In her revelation of their “childish” wisdom, we cannot help but be reminded of the mentally deranged behaviors of adults to war and destroy each other for beliefs or worse, for power and profit.
This is a film that every global leader should see. It is a film that should be shown before UN conferences and certainly to those who are involved with UNICEF. Bailey has won for “Best Documentary of the Year,” at the Inside Film Awards Australia and the film has won additional awards. As the film becomes known surely the wins will continue. It shouldn’t be missed for the children, the themes, and the editing. It is that good.[amazon asin= 0545629187&template=iframe image]