In 2005, Genevieve Bailey was a journalist working at a Melbourne newspaper, encountering ‘bad’ news stories on a daily basis.
Against this backdrop, and in the wake of a series of personal crises, she began to conceive creating a positive story to cheer up audiences, as well as herself.
“I had been in a serious car accident and through a lot of physical pain,” she recalls.
“Recovering from that, my dad then passed away from cancer, so I wanted to make a change. I wanted to make something positive.”
I am Eleven opens with just such positivity.
“I thought back to my favourite age of life,” the documentary’s narrator intones, “And why I loved it so much. When the world feels big in a good way and at our feet.
“For me, that was when I was eleven.”
Having dealt with young people during her time as a fiction writer, Bailey was particularly inspired by them.
“I think in society we focus a lot on what children could learn from adults. I thought about capturing something on film that is full of hope, positivity and honesty. When you’re eleven, you’re quite willing to express your opinions, so I thought this project would present a really intimate and honest portrayal of this generation on an international scale for audiences.”
Inspired by the idea, Bailey started an international trek, journeying through 15 countries where she specifically looked for eleven-year-old children to interview and film as they went about their daily lives.
“The documentaries we used to see, especially important documentaries, were about political issues that are actually quite upsetting,” Bailey asserts. “Even though these are very important and should be made, I wanted to make something with serious issues but also with a lot of joy in it.”
With this in mind, Bailey created a list of questions covering topics as far-ranging as love, war, terrorism, family, religion, the environment and the future. The combination of the kids’ private lives, coupled with their public concerns, is what gives the film its deep insight into the human condition.
Since the release of I am Eleven, Bailey has been travelling the country to promote the film, taking press interviews wherever possible, but also arriving in places where she had no contacts through which to promote it.
“I had to put on another hat and learn a lot about film distribution. I would tell the audiences upfront [in the screening] that we didn’t have a budget like Spiderman to put ads on buses or like Twilight to put up on big billboards, but we really needed positive word of mouth, so if they liked the film, to please tell their friends, their family. To call someone they knew when they were eleven.
“I came out with all these ideas to honestly let audiences know that they were able to help us get the word out. And they really did. So I guess the experience taught me a lot in terms of the business side of filmmaking as well as the creative side. I just feel like I’ve learnt so much and I continue to learn so much.”
During the numerous press interviews she took, Bailey rarely mentioned she worked three jobs to raise the money needed for the production of this self-funded film. The day before the I am Eleven premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival, someone asked her if there had been a time when she had thought ‘I’m never going to finish this’ or ‘what’s the point of doing this?’.
Bailey’s reply was calm and confident.
“I never once thought I wouldn’t finish it. I never once thought there’s no point of doing it. And I never once thought the film wouldn’t meet the audiences expectations because I already believed in it so much from the start, and even more so as the years went by, and I realised what was important was to not let having no funding prevent me from doing it.
“There were times that were extremely difficult, but I’m so glad we persisted, jumped hurdles and continued to work really hard to get it in front of the audiences. When it did reach the public, it was responded to so well, and I’m really proud.”
“Reading IF magazine and all these media articles ever since I was young about Australian films not doing very well as everyone hoped…I’m glad that didn’t put me off. Sometimes people say Australians don’t want to support, or don’t go on and support, Australian films. But I think it’s about connecting with the audiences before the film comes out. Making sure they know about it and they care about it.”
Although the film has been in the can for some time, the ‘I am Eleven project’ continues. Travelling to places around the globe that the 94-minute film does not cover, Bailey continues to interview more eleven-year-olds.
“We are also very excited about inviting eleven-year-olds who want to get involved by sharing their own content. So they might make a video interview with themselves, write a song or poem like Grace does, or draw a picture and send it to us. Our website continues to grow so that eleven-year-olds can share their voices with the world. Also, when people who like I am Eleven come back to the website, they always discover new content. I think it’s very important to always provide audiences with new and engaging content.”
For Bailey and co-producer Henrik Nordstrom, the making of I am Eleven is the culmination of passion, hard work and a series of unexpected encounters and coincidences, also leading to some unexpected outcomes.
In 2008, she received a phone call from a friend called John Anderson, an eccentric man about whom she had made a short documentary years before. She was invited to a gig in Melbourne where she met the Indian musician Chacko, who runs an orphanage in India. Bailey decided to visit Chacko’s orphanage, interviewing the eleven-year-olds cared for at the orphanage as part of the I am Eleven project.
“We didn’t feel comfortable just going over there and not doing anything to help them,” Bailey says, “So I started a voluntary organisation here, collected supplies and then we went to India.”
“They were short of lots of things, but they were not short of love,” she fondly recalls.
“We felt very inspired to include them in the film but also to share their stories in other ways with audiences around the world because we realised that everything we do over there really made a difference.”
When Bailey first started the film, she had no idea how long it would take, nor that she would end up raising enough funds to purchase 3.5 acres of land in Southern India, build new homes and a school, and to supply food, clothing and much more for a group of orphans there.
“I think the film has become a lifestyle for me,” Bailey laughs.
“It’s not just work. It’s my kind of everything.
“I like it how when you are making something you get completely entrenched in it and spend every day in it, thinking about it.”
Taking six years to complete, Bailey’s I am Eleven won Best Documentary at the IF Awards in 2011, is now having its national DVD release and is accompanied by the founding of the Darlingheart Foundation http://www.darlingheart.org/
For screenings and DVD information, see www.iameleven.com
Article edited by Paul Bugeja