What was your favorite age? For Melbourne-based filmmaker, writer and editor Genevieve Bailey it was 11. In 2005, armed with a plane ticket generously gifted by her uncle and a head full of ideas, Bailey set off to interview 11-year-olds across the globe about their views on the world, politics and their hope for the future. What started as a short film became a labor of love spanning seven years and multiple countries. The resulting documentary, “I Am Eleven,” takes audiences on an uplifting journey into the minds of those who will inherit the world we have created. The film has won numerous awards including Best Documentary at the IF Awards and Outstanding Documentary at the Newport Beach Film Festival, and has been playing to crowded audiences since it began screening in Australia this July. In addition to working as a filmmaker, editor and writer, Bailey spends a great deal of her time working for Darling Heart Foundation at the “Our Home” homeless shelter in Kerala, India. We caught up with Bailey as she finished a nine-hour day of screenings to discuss hard work, holding on to a dream and why her parents never had to push her to complete her homework.
Does it feel good to finally see the film playing in cinemas in your own country?
Yeah, it’s very exciting. A lot of people in Melbourne know about it. I was putting up posters on Friday night for four hours in the city in my parka. I was on my own thinking, “Oh, I need 20 of me.” It was freezing and every ten minutes I’d think, “Oh just another half an hour.” And people were watching me and I’d say, “Hey, come and see my film” and people would go, “Your film? What do you mean ‘your’ film?,” and I’d be like, “I made it.” People look at you like if you’re the girl in the parka and the beanie sticking up posters late at night you’re not the person who made it.
How did you get into film? Was it something you always knew you’d do or did you initially begin another career?
When I was young, I was a real math and science geek. I guess I got to 15 and realized I really loved shooting stuff. So, I decided then that I wanted to go to university and study film. I did that for four years and did Honors and then went back and started teaching at my old course. I just really love it and feel inspired every day by the stories going around in my head. I guess I have a sense of urgency about my work—which might sound a bit ironic considering the time I spent on this film—but I just have this sense of urgency about getting stuff done now rather than putting it off and waiting. I was never someone who had to be asked if they’d done their homework. I’ve always just got on and done things.
This is your first feature-length film after making a lot of shorts. How did the idea come about?
It was around 2004 and I’d been through a difficult time. My dad passed away and I’d been in a serious car accident six months prior, and I was depressed. I was working in a newsroom at the Herald Sun as an editorial assistant, shooting news videos and just realizing how much bad stuff there was going on in the world. I was feeling really flat and I guess I wanted to make something that would make me happy. At its simplest, what I really wanted to do was to make audiences and me happy and that’s why I set out to make “I Am Eleven.”
I’d never been outside of Australia so I wanted to give myself a challenge of going around the world, but rather than just hanging out with people like me or backpackers, I wanted to actually experience cultures firsthand in quite an intimate way. So, I thought back to my favorite age in life and that was when I was eleven. And I thought, wow, I wonder what it would be like to be 11 today and I wonder if 11 is still the special age that I remember it to be or if it’s changed. My plan was to find 11-year-olds and interview them. I was incredibly fortunate in that my uncle, after hearing about my dreams, donated the price of the plane fare and I was then able to upgrade the camera I had. I come from a family where those sorts of gifts are not just handed out easily so it was incredible that I had that support and belief from the very start.
The subjects in your film all seem really open, honest and genuine. How did you locate these 11-year-olds and how did you get them to trust you?
In every country there were schools and in every school there would be 11-year-olds, but I decided early on not to go down that route because I knew there would be a filtering process. An adult, usually a teacher, would perhaps choose the brightest students or the student who really wanted to be an actor or a performer. And even though those kids would be interesting, I wanted to see what I found more organically. I found such amazing boys and girls and such fantastic personalities in such a random way that I decided that would be my style. I’d arrive in a new city, talk to people, and go out on to the streets, go to market places and shops, talk to the locals and ask if they had any kids or if they knew people with kids. That became part of the adventure.
A lot of people comment on how hard it must have been for the kids to be so natural. They’re very intimate portraits. It’s my job as a director and producer to gain their trust and their family’s trust and to make them comfortable. If I was in a film and I wasn’t comfortable with the person behind the camera it wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal of who I am. In a lot of cases I think the kids thought that since I wasn’t that much older than them and because my gear wasn’t that big and didn’t look that sophisticated, that it was like hanging out with an older friend and just being themselves. I didn’t have any parents not allow me to do it. One thing I did that I’d recommend to other filmmakers is to set up a website quite early on and put a trailer up so that audiences could have a look at it. Word of mouth was spreading about the project before it was even finished. From a marketing point of view that was good for us, but it also meant that the parents could check out the website and get a sense for what it was and that I wasn’t a creep and that it was a legitimate project.
Seven years is a long time to work on any creative project. What kept you motivated?
When I started making the film, I imagined what the synopsis would be even before I started filming. And I thought “Yeah, I’d want to see that.” When I started this, I could never have known how big it would become in my life or how many years it would take but I always knew it would sustain my interest. I think, as filmmakers, you can start a project without any idea of just how much it will consume your life. The fact that the kids are so inspiring and insightful and that they made me laugh, and made me really think, has meant that I’ve been able to continue to work on it and market it. The kids speak for themselves. I think because of the nature of the film people leave feeling really quite pumped. They come out of the cinema really energized. It reminds them of their own inner 11-year-old and that energy.
I recently spoke with a woman who was coming out of one of our screenings. She came over to me and said, “I need to speak with you! I’m turning 80 this year and I’ve been reminding myself I need to slow down. I want to be here, there and everywhere doing everything but I keep getting told to slow down. After seeing your film and hearing you speak I just think, well, why? Why do I need to slow down? I’m not going to! I’m going to get off my bum and just do things, do everything.”
The film and the kids in it, most specifically, have given me this sense of self-belief and courage. I’m definitely not an arrogant person or overly confident but I do have this belief that if you work hard enough and you’re passionate enough, you can make stuff happen.
“I Am Eleven” is currently screening in cinemas across Australia. Find out more by watching the trailer. Any international film festival, distribution or sales inquiries can be sent to screenings[at]iameleven[dot]com. To let others know what you were doing at 11, visit “When I Was Eleven.”