According to Urban Dictionary 11 year olds are “Tweens” — a recently popularised demographic of not quite children, not yet teenagers arguably created by marketing masterminds as a valuable consumer base in order to sell more Bratz dolls. Aged between 9 and 14, tweens are, “Too young for boys, too old for toys”, make up most of Mary Kate and Ashley‘s fan base and are likely to identify with the Britney Spears song “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman.” The chronicling of their daily lives, hopes and insights also provides the basis for Australian film maker Genevieve Bailey‘s documentary feature film and online project I Am Eleven — a portrait of a multicultural and diverse group of individuals who linger on the cusp of adulthood in an increasingly complex and tumultuous world, seemingly bound together by nothing more than their age.
I Am Eleven is at once sweet, sad and surprising and leaves the viewer ultimately uplifted by the infectious optimism and honesty of the children. Kimberley from New Jersey gushes that although she is a little young for love she hopes to “Meet some guy in college and he’s going to go, ‘Oh my god, I love your hair’ and I’m going to go, ‘Oh my god I love your shoes.’” Her typically Disney outlook is contrasted minutes later by the striking insight provided by a perfect advertisement for European education, Remi from Maguelone, who finds it “Completely absurd” to know that, “There are still people who differentiate between humans depending on race.” Such jumps between the adorable and the contemplative are typical of Bailey’s documentary — much like the 11 year olds who colour it.
Where Bailey could have easily fallen into a reduction of this diverse and engaging group into 90 minutes of cuteness overload, she resists — and not for lack of ammunition. Moving beyond their ability to warm our cynical and jaded souls I Am Eleven simultaneously celebrates and “Gives voice to a vast range of incomparable subjects whose individual circumstances cannot be reduced to a single commonality.” After initially premiering at the 60th Melbourne International Film Festival to sell out audiences, the film has screened in Sydney, Newport Beach, Cleveland, Halifax and most recently, New York, receiving critical acclaim for its universally uniting subject matter. No matter who or where you are, I Am Eleven will make you glad to know that despite an increasingly “Internet-enabled, tele-connected, media savvy” childhood, 11 year olds remain resiliently “Optimistic, blissful and carefree.” The world will not be inherited by an army of Bratz dolls. Genevieve Bailey explains why below.
Portable: What spawned the idea for the film?
Genevieve Bailey: I saw Spellbound at MIFF in 2003 and I will always remember the feeling I had both during the screening and as I left the cinema. I remember saying to myself, “You should make a film that makes people feel like that.” I wanted to create something that would live on many years after my life here ends. Something that becomes a snapshot in history for future generations.
P: Why 11? Why not 10, 12 or seven? What does that age mean to you?
Genevieve Bailey: As I recalled it to be, this age is when you don’t feel like such a child anymore but you are not quite a teenager. Quite a few of the boys and girls I met acknowledged this, such as Grace who said, “I always remind myself don’t grow up too fast.” The world starts to feel big in a good way, and big dreams feel possible to achieve. There is a certain openness at that age, a sense of hope and ambition that runs through the blood of 11 year olds!
P: What did your life look like at 11 and how does this differ from the lives of the children you came into contact with through I Am Eleven?
Genevieve Bailey: I grew up with my parents, 2 brothers and sister and dogs Pepe and Pixie. I loved to dance, play basketball, and shoot weird home movies when we had access to a camera. I tried to learn the capital city of every country I could, but had never left my home state of Victoria. So I wasn’t one of those lucky kids who had seen a lot of Australia or been overseas. I suppose I made up for it making I Am Eleven in my 20s and traveling to 15 countries. I think my parents encouraged me to be me when I was 11. They always allowed us to follow our dreams and choose a career that made us happy rather than prioritising one that guaranteed making a lot of money. I feel lucky that I have grown up continuing to believe that many things are possible if you work hard and are nice to people along the way. I love that I Am Eleven is connecting with audiences all over the world, and that it encourages people to reflect on their own 11 year-old selves.
Many of the children had access to computers, mobile phones and the internet (I must add not all did, I think sometimes we forget that many people don’t have access to clean drinking water let alone technology like that). I think in some cases this enabled the children to have a greater insight to global events, especially given the media sphere and overload of information online. When I was 11 I had a pretty average encyclopedia, the 6pm news, my teachers and parents to access information from. But now if kids do want to learn more about an issue, a place in the world, religion, hobby, celebrity, music etc. many of them can.
I think at heart the children were all really enjoying this time in life and their courage, honesty, proactive mindset and hope for the future inspired me to share their lives with the world. Someone wrote a comment on our website after seeing the film, “If only the world was run by 11 year-olds”. I tend to agree!
P: After receiving such overwhelming success and positive audience responses internationally, what’s next for the project?
Genevieve Bailey: We are expanding the web platform to not only feature more children that we interview but also to invite children from all over the world to submit their own stories that we can share via this online community. They can share their views on a range of universal themes through video, text, music, photos, drawings, etc. We are really excited about this!