Art Essays

I Am Eleven, The Curse of the Gothic Symphony

Published July 21, 2012

Screening opportunities are limited for Australian filmmakers, let alone documentary makers who may only expect to recoup their costs through TV and DVD sales. Two new efforts, I Am Eleven and The Curse of the Gothic Symphony, are currently enjoying the novelty of limited releases in cinemas around Australia.

I Am Eleven by rookie film-maker, Genevieve Bailey, is one of those cut & paste affairs in which a large number of interviews are assembled into an anthology of voices and opinions. Ideally there should be no discernible script, and the filmmaker herself should be almost invisible. Think of Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day (2011) or Michael Apted’s epic series that started with 7 Up! (1964)
Bailey’s variation on this theme was to interview eleven-year-olds from fifteen countries, hearing their views on life and love, war and peace, the environment, religion, friendship, the future, and so on. The way she tells it the project began as a kind of therapy. She had lost her father, and been involved in a serious car accident. Everywhere she looked there was death and disaster. The antidote was to make a film that was “energetic, optimistic, universal and real.”
She set out to interview children at that age just before the hormones kick in, when life seems simple and the future bright. Personally, I can’t remember ever feeling like that, but Bailey can.
The results are predictably irresistable. By turns the kids are charming, funny, goofy and absurdly serious. They say childish things that sound remarkably like common sense when set against the complexities of adult life. Certain personalities tend to dominate, such as Billy, a cockney lad whose mind moves in mysterious ways. At the other extreme there is Remi, from the south of France, who speaks like a philosopher, dissecting the concept of “love” into three separate categories.
National characteristics come through in comparing the Indian kids with their American counterparts, but it is just as clear that the cultures of the world have become intextricably intertwined. Australian Jack lives in Thailand, British Grace lives in the Czech Republic, and Aboriginal Jamira shares a block of flats in Carlton with kids from Eritrea, Somalia, and the Middle East.
While Genevieve Bailey cheered herself up by talking to eleven-year-olds, Veronica Fury made herself miserable by getting caught up in an outlandish scheme to stage Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony (1919-27) in Brisbane. The idea began with music enthusiast, Gary Thorpe, who had spent 28 years trying to find support for the project. We enter at the point where he has secured a conductor in John Curro, who is brave or mad enough to take on a symphony which requires the equivalent of two orchestras, four brass bands and a chorus of 400 voices.
It is described, with scant hyberbole, as “the Mount Everest” of the classical music repertoire.
The Brisbane concert, which took place on 22 December 2010, was only the fourth time the piece had been performed. Randall Wood’s documentary takes us through the elaborate preparations and frustrations involved. There is a lot of stuff about the supposed “curse” associated with this symphony, which may be explained as a logistical problem on a grand scale. Through a series of staged vignettes we also learn about the eccentric British composer, Havergal Brian (1876-1972), who wrote a huge volume of music despite being totally neglected for most of his career.
Above all, The Curse of the Gothic Symphony reminds us what a mass of contradictions we find in Queensland: a state divvied up between philistines and cultural fanatics. Look at the Gallery of Modern Art, the thirty-odd regional galleries that have appeared in the past two decades, the Gothic Symphony – and then think of Campbell Newman proudly axing the state’s literary prizes. It’s reassuring  there are Queenslanders such as Gary Thorpe who see every setback as a reason to try harder.
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I Am Eleven, Australia, rated G, 90 mins
The Curse of the Gothic Symphony, Australia, rated G,82 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, July 21, 2012