10/17 Lark Theater, Larkspur
Genevieve Bailey’s award-winning documentary, I AM ELEVEN, opened to such fave reviews, that theaters across the Bay Area have extended the film for the next 2 weeks. Don’t miss this last chance to see such a beautiful, deeply personal and at times hilarious film of what it means to stand on the cusp between childhood and adolescence. I’m extremely excited to share an exclusive interview with award winning film director, Genevieve Bailey.
Can you tell me what Genevieve Bailey was like at 11? Did something specifically happen, or not happen, at 11 that made you love that year of your life over 10 or 12?
I was similar to who I am now. When I was 11, I went from primary to high school. I was young in my class but I love that transition because I went from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a big pond. Suddenly I had hundreds of kids to meet and hundreds of new relationships to form.
I still love dogs, dancing, people, I’m very social, congenial, interested in the environment and other cultures. Like I said in the film, when I was 11, I felt the world was big in a good way. I became very interested in learning the capital city of every country I could and learning about other cultures. Even though I never left my city of Melbourne, I was interested in the wide world. Sometimes people reflect on the time they were 11 and that they are still, at heart, very much who they were at 11. That’s true for me.
Another reason why it was my favorite age was because my dad, who worked for the government as a public servant, was made redundant. He was home for one year which meant he would drive me to school, take me to basketball training, and sew sequins on my dance costumes. He was very present. When I was 22 my dad passed away, only 11 years later. I look back to 11 as being very special where I got to spend a lot of time with my dad.
In the movie you said that at the time you conceived “I Am Eleven” you were 23 years old and going through depression stemming from a bad car accident, the loss of your father, and devastating global images from the Asian tsunami during your time working for a major newspaper in Australia. I found it so interesting that at 23 you decided to channel that energy to something as risky as making a movie. How did that feeling help drive you to the idea of making an uplifting movie about 11 year olds around the globe? Did making the movie help you deal with your depression?
Like anyone having a rough time in life the idea of having a purpose can really help you to turn things around and for me I saw a real need for a film like this. Part of the reason I wanted to make I AM ELEVEN is because it is the sort of film that I would want to see and I believe other people would want to see it too. We see so much negativity in the media, not just the newspapers but in television and cinema where there is so much violence. You put on the television and you see people doing horrible things to each other and it’s presented as entertainment. I had a problem with that and thought I want to make something that makes me and audiences happy. And I wanted this film to not just be fun but also entertaining and insightful and to shed light on how children are seeing the world all over the world which is why I didn’t make a film about just Australian kids, English kids, or American kids. I really wanted to take the audience on trip around the world and reconnect them with their inner child.
There were so many layers that led me to create this film. I didn’t have any funds or grants or wealthy parents paying for my film. I just had this belief that it was worth a shot and the giant 11 year old in me likes to jump into things rather then worrying about how hard it will be. It has been a huge part of my life and there have been plenty of hurdles and challenges along the way but the kids inspired me so much that I realized the resilience and perspective that I learned from those kids has really inspired me and helped me make the film as big as I could possibly make it.
You went to 15 countries in your movie and filmed 22 kids. How did you come to choose these countries and situations (orphanage in India, elephant sanctuary in Thailand, Jewish girl in New Jersey, etc.)?
I decided early on that the easiest way to find 11 year olds would be to go to schools since that is where they are hanging out everyday. But I worried that schools might offer up kids with the best grades or acting experience. Even though those kids would have been interesting, I didn’t need the kids to have those backgrounds.
I had three rules. My first rule was that they had to be 11; my second rule was that they had to want to be involved; and the third rule was that the parent or guardian gave permission for them to be involved. But other then that I was open to any kid because I knew they all had something to offer.
So, I decided to do it in a much more random way. I hit streets, went to market places, talked to people in book stores, bus stops and asked people “Do you know any 11 year olds around here?” It was a very unconventional way to produce a film. I produced, shot, edited, I had so many roles in this film. I became really comfortable with approaching strangers. Every story about how I found each kid is different and some are really funny and some situations were more strenuous but at the end of the day I didn’t leave the country until I interviewed an eleven year old there first.
Can you tell me about one of the funniest ones? I went into a book store in Berlin, Germany and asked the lady “Do you have any kids?” She said, “Yes, I have a 10 and 12 year old, why?” and I said “I am looking for 11 year olds.” And she said that there was a book published last year called “10 in Berlin” and it was 10 photographs of 10, 10 year-olds in Berlin. She said “That book was published last year so they are all 11 now and my friend published it so just pick a kid.” I opened the book and I said “What about her?” and she said “She lives right across the street from the book store.” I thought what are the chances of that happening.
Did you have a favorite country you’d like to return to? A country you missed? Was there a child you had a special connection with?
Audiences always ask me ‘who was your favorite kid?’ When I was a kid I asked my mom who was her favorite out of all of her kids in the family. And her response was “Mothers don’t have favorites, we love all our kids equally.” And I feel like that in the film, all the kids inspired me and have provided insight into their life in different ways so I love them all for different reasons. But I would say that audience favorites are Billy from London and Remi from the South of France. For me, I enjoyed all of them and want to go back and see any of them when ever I can.
I particularly loved to photograph in India. I’ve been back to India every year since we shot there and the kids there are like nephews and nieces to us. We’ve been doing a lot to help raise support for them. We created a foundation to help the kids in India and disadvantaged children around the world called ♥ The Darlingheart Foundation ♥.
My 11 year old daughter just signed up in the filmmaking club at her middle school. What advice would you give to a kid who aspires to be a filmmaker? Any advice for parents, like myself, to help encourage these future filmmakers/storytellers?
I always say to people, of any age, you should never let lack of fancy equipment or access to money stop you from telling your story. I made a lot of short films before “I AM ELEVEN” and the one that traveled the most around the world and won the most in prizes was made for about $100 with an old camera. When you get access to fancy equipment that is a great opportunity but if you don’t have access to all the bells and whistles; you can still tell stories and for me the story is the most important thing in the filmmaking process.
Reaching audiences is another important part and sharing your work even if it is rough. Showing it to people is the most exciting part of the process because you can gauge their reaction and see how the film is being received. I encourage people of any age to share their work and see how people respond to what they are making.
To parents, I would say it’s very easy, whether we are conscious of it or not, to tell kids how to do things or not do things or suggest what they should make a film about or how they should do it. What I would recommend to a parent is to provide an opportunity to let their kids experiment and explore on their own without them. There is not a right or wrong way to do anything and don’t pressure them into telling certain kinds of stories. It’s important for kids to experiment and play. What I do for myself as a filmmaker is to give myself that space to really explore and I think children are naturally curious that they make really great storytellers because of that.
What were your dreams as a child? Did your parents support your dreams as you were growing up?
When I was 11, I was really into maths and science. I was interested in a career in forensic sciences and then I found out what that meant and realized I didn’t want to do that. I was very curious about the world, really interested in people, and was very social. My parents supported me in decisions I made regardless of what vocation it was.
Actually, while making film, and especially since distributing it, I realize (although in my heart I knew this) how influential my parents have been in not telling me what to do and encouraging me to do what ever it is that makes me happy. I realize that not everyone is raised in an environment where they are encouraged to follow their dreams. I am so very grateful to my parents. They were happy whether I wanted to become a scientist or engineer or filmmaker or teacher that they encouraged me to pursue what makes my heart sing. I am very grateful for that and I wish every child could have that.
This film was shot over a 6 year period. Was the final film what you envisioned when you started thinking about the concept when you were 23?
I look back now wishing someone interviewed me before I started because my memory before I AM ELEVEN feels so long ago. It has been such a big part of my life. I was 24 when I got onto that first flight to Tokyo and within an hour of being in Japan, I loved it so much I contacted my travel agent saying I want to stay longer. I enjoy being out of my comfort zone, the challenges of arriving in a new place, and having to start from scratch.
I reached a point early on realizing I can just keep this a small film or I can put all my energy, money and time I have into it and make it as big as possible. That was the point when I really decided that I wanted I AM ELEVEN to reach millions of people around the world and not for this to be just for family and friends. I wanted it to be as big as possible. Once I was committed to that there was no going back.
Was there anything that ended up on the cutting room floor that you wished you could have kept in the movie?
There was but the reality is shooting over 100 hours of footage, I had to cut a lot out to keep it to an hour and a half. That’s editing for you. On the DVD we can have the extra footage, outtakes, and behind the scenes. A lot of people are curious of the kids now. We can include updates of what the kids are doing now, how they are growing up and we definitely want to make a sequel as well.
You said earlier that you were directing, producing, shooting, editing and distributing your first film. Each of these tasks are extraordinarily time consuming and require a lot of focus. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give the 23 year-old Genevieve Bailey now that you have been through this process, that you didn’t know then? How about 11 year old Gen?
While there were a number of key decisions that I had to make along the way that were difficult decisions, I do not have any regrets. Even though challenges financially can be quite stressful while trying to achieve it with our small budget, I am glad we maintained all creative, financial and technical control. There was an option to hand the film over to another company. But we didn’t feel comfortable just handing over a work that was so precious to us and hope that another company would do a good job with it. So we did maintain control of the project and I’m so glad.
We had the premier of the film in Melbourne, Australia and I went to the restroom after the screening. My teacher from when I was 11 was there washing her hands. She said to me, “Oh Genevieve, that whole film is you when you were 11.” It was really interesting to hear that. At first it sounded weird but there are similarities between all of us and so many differences. I wanted I AM ELEVEN to highlight that. Show what makes us similar but also to celebrate what makes us different. I think back to my childhood and I had friends from the Philippines, Greece, Ireland, Argentina and I loved that cultural diversity. But I am conscious that not all children grow up with cultural diversity and learning about different peoples experiences and about privileged, opportunity and human rights. When I think back to when I was 11, I was interested in our differences. I was celebrating that then and I still do now.
I think I would tell myself just to enjoy every minute which I have been doing and to always remember when there are hurdles or barriers in front of you to jump a little higher and get over them.
You asked the question at the beginning of the movie, “Are they still having as much fun as I did when I was 11?” Some of the subjects the kids spoke about in the movie (love, war, the environment, happiness, and the future) and a variety of life circumstance (orphan, divorce, extreme poverty, bodies changing, racism, and bullying.) Did you feel that they were still having as much fun as you did at 11?
Yes, I did and I am glad because I wondered how much technology, advancement with the internet and access to news would hinder their experiences in their childhood. As you saw in the film, the children I found were not glued to computer screens and seeing the horrible images around the world. Even though some of them have grown up in face of adversity they all had this sense of hope, optimism, curiosity and a real sense of clarity. I think when you are 11, the world doesn’t feel as crowded, there is a real sense of ambition and respect. For instance, in the movie, Remi, the boy from the South of France, talked about the 3 different types of love he believed in and mentioned the love you have for people you’ve never met before. I think that is quite special.
Do you have any other projects in the future to watch for?
Yes I do. I am really happy that I AM ELEVEN is playing in the US and in addition to the screening, something else is happening called “GATHR” which is when they have a direct and easy way people can demand the film screens in their city. The company I work with said in the last few weeks since the opening they received 73 requests across the US so I am going to be touring around with the film which is exciting. For more information check out www.iameleven.com/gathr
But my next project is about mental health which is something I feel very passionate to shine a light on.
Now I have a request for you and your readers. Do you remember when you were eleven? I have a sister website www.wheniwaseleven.com. I would love for you to take a photo of yourself and share a memory from when you were 11.