A short documentary from filmmaker Terence Brown features interviews with 60 children from a local elementary school during their final days of fifth grade.
Adult question: “What the best part of being 11?”
Child’s answer: “It’s the only time you’re going to be two ones.”
That exchange, between a filmmaker and his young subject, encapsulates some of the humor in Terence Brown’s new documentary, “Before,” which was shot with 60 children from Loyal Heights Elementary during the final days of fifth grade. The film also offers a poignant reminder of what it is to be on the cusp of adolescence.
For all the energy devoted to figuring out how best to educate kids, it’s rare to actually hear from them in a sustained, thoughtful way. “Before” helps fill that void, inter-cutting conversations between Brown and his subjects in the last days before they launch into middle school and all that comes after.
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Viewable online, for free, Brown’s film takes us inside kids’ reality, showing us what they worry about (bullies, terrorists), what confuses them (sex, politics) and whether they still think of themselves as children (sort of).
Education Lab recently interviewed Brown about “Before,” which was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, and what he hopes to achieve with it.
Why did you make this film?
I had an 11-year-old son, and I was watching him begin to ask these bigger questions, expressing worry about what was his job going to be, what was going on with all these school shootings. And I realized that I didn’t really remember that age very well myself. I remember Reagan getting shot and the Rubik’s Cube, but I didn’t remember what I was feeling. Watching my son and his friends, I began to see this as a very important, transitional time.
After your interviews, what did you find most surprising?
When I asked, “Do you think life is fair?” a girl who worries about being popular just said “No.” She knew. I was surprised at some of the self-actualization that I saw already happening. When I asked “Do you worry about death?” they had some answers that showed this wasn’t the first time they’d thought about it. That was interesting to me.
What do you think viewers will get out of the film?
My hope is that adults will come away with a better sense of who they were at that age, and maybe look back at their own childhoods with a little more compassion. There’s a lot going on, and maybe none of us were really as awkward and clueless as we thought.
Do you think childhood is the same today as 30 or 40 years ago?
It’s a lot more complicated, there is no doubt. I don’t know if it’s harder or easier, but it’s definitely more complex. With social media and the internet, how could it not be?
Many of these children say things that will make viewers curious about what happens next. Did you consider checking back as they get older?
Making the film, I had a mantra: It’s about the age, not about the kids. This was intended to be a collective, greater than the sum of its parts. I didn’t want to make it about any one kid’s personal story. That said, I think a lot of us recognize ourselves in these kids.
Your next project?
Maybe a documentary about Gen-Xers, my generation. Now we’re at the oldest age of youth or the youngest age of whatever comes next. In that way, it’s similar to that gray area where these kids are.