A world of 11-year-old voices
11-year-old Vandana lives in an orphanage in Kerala, India.
Genevieve Bailey's documentary I Am Eleven is a film of great warmth, generosity and optimism: it's a work that wears its strengths and virtues lightly, without insistence or heavy-handedness. It has a large cast, although it doesn't seem that way: there are 23 children in the movie and their stories are gracefully and fluently interwoven.
Bailey headed overseas in 2005 with a camera and a mission - she wanted to make a film, she tells us, about 11-year-olds. There were various reasons why she embarked on this project and why she chose this particular age, but one of them was her feeling that it was the time of her life when she had been the happiest.
And so, over the course of several years, travelling to 15 countries, she found her subjects. Her camera has an unforced intimacy that never feels intrusive: she establishes a sense of proximity to her subjects and their point of view. There are questions, clearly, that she asks each one, but there are also times when she follows their lead.
One of her most memorable encounters is with Billy, from London, whose guileless, direct and vivid observations and responses can mix matter-of-fact candour and flights of unexpected fancy. Then there's the self-possessed Remi, a French boy who seems a natural philosopher with clear ideas about the environment, human nature and responsibility for others, who loves snakes and hates racism. Jack, an Australian boy living in Thailand, is another with a philosophical bent and a keen interest in the natural world.
In Sweden, Bailey meets a pair of passionate rappers, Osama and Sahin; in the Czech Republic, she spends time with Grace, an English girl with a creative bent who also likes the idea of being a secret agent. In Melbourne, there's the luminous Jamira, who marks her 11th birthday during the movie. And in India she spends time with several children who live together in an orphanage (pictured): there, what emerges is a sense of both individual and group identity.
The clear and beguiling aspect of I Am Eleven is how much her subjects have in common, despite the contrasts in circumstances and expectations. Each child comes across as an individual, sometimes strikingly so. Yet there is something they all seem to share: a kind of openness and thoughtfulness, expressed in myriad ways, that transcends other differences.
I Am Eleven opens in selected cinemas today.