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'I Am Eleven': The documentary is a paean to an innocent age

'Eleven' is an enjoyable mishmash of young voices and faces poised between childhood and teenagerdom.

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    Jamira, an Aboriginal girl, speaks openly about her life in Australia in‘I Am Eleven.’The film’s child subjects come from all over the world.
    Courtesy of Henrik Nordstrom/International Film Circuit Inc.
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Australian documentary filmmaker Genevieve Bailey remembers her 11th year as being the happiest in her life, a time when, as she explains, “the world feels big in a good way, and at our feet.” Wondering if today’s 11-year-olds are still “excited about inheriting this crazy world,” she spends six years interviewing 11-year-olds from 15 countries. 

The result is “I Am Eleven,” which doesn’t exactly accomplish what Bailey set out to achieve but is nonetheless an enjoyable mishmash of young voices and faces poised between childhood and teenagerdom.

It’s a simple enough idea, and, at first, as we are introduced to the dozen or so children in quick segments, there is the expectation that Bailey will eventually provide more sustained time with them. She never does, and the constant shuttling between interviews fragments the choral effect that I believe she intended. We never get enough of these kids, which I suppose is a tribute to them, but also leaves us frustrated.

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The array of youngsters is quite diverse – and quite a show. Jamira, an Aboriginal girl from Australia, says, “I like being different; I like being special.” Little Goh, from Thailand, loves riding elephants, though he lets us know that his father told him, “Don’t ride on an elephant who runs very fast.” (The kids’ parents, in a questionable directorial choice, are entirely absent on-screen.) Another boy, Jack, apparently a Brit but born in Thailand, also rides elephants. He offers up some medical advice: “If you have a headache, all you’ve got to do is put your head to an elephant’s head and within seconds your headache goes away.” Don’t try this at home.

Some of the 11-year-olds, such as Rika of Japan, seem younger than their years. “About boys,” she says, “I sometimes feel they are a nuisance but sometimes I really want to tickle them.” And then there is Remi, from France, who talks about the scourge of racism and nationalism and the need to develop solar-energy resources. He seems about 32. Billy, a chubby English boy whose speech is so convoluted it required subtitles, offers up this capsule description of what’s in store for him: “When you’re an adult your voice changes again and then you get married to the woman you love and then you get children and grandchildren and then boom. It all ends.”

Bailey didn’t go looking for the most photogenic or articulate or “representative” kids, avoiding the classrooms and venturing instead into the streets and byways for her random recruitments. But, of course, as a filmmaker she ended up choosing subjects who played well on camera. (Some, like Sree Kutty from India, had never seen a foreigner before and didn’t know what an interview was.) The cross section of voices has an uplifting heft, which was Bailey’s intention, but this also limits the film’s comprehensiveness. None of the kids are severely troubled or malnourished or suffering from dire poverty (though a number of them are from orphanages). 

“I Am Eleven” is a happy-face paean to a generation that hopefully will do better than we adults are doing to fix the world. This is a pleasing, even a necessary, fantasy, and who knows? Maybe there’s something to it. Grade: B (This film is not rated.)

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