Page last updated at 08:56 GMT, Thursday, 7 May 2009 09:56 UK

Sounds like Junior Eurovision

Ukraine's entrant Ilona Halytska
Emotions run high during the contest, which was held in Rotterdam in the Netherlands

by Kev Geoghegan
BBC News reporter

Hands up. Who honestly knew that the Eurovision Song Contest had a kids-only spin-off?

The slightly unimaginatively titled Junior Eurovision has been on the go since 2003. It is limited to children aged between 10 and 15 but otherwise shares many similarities with the grown-up version.

The songs are to be original, written by the performers and under three minutes long.

The local presenters are very excitable and speak English with vaguely American accents. The voting system feels a bit corrupt - in that the neighbouring countries seem to favour each other.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the UK tends not to do very well at all.

In fact, in a new documentary - or popumentary - Sounds Like Teen Spirit, the British contingent is notable by its absence.

14-year-old Yiorgos Ioannides from Cyprus
14-year-old Yiorgos reveals he is tormented by classmates

"There's been three [British acts] in the history of Junior Eurovision," smiles the film's director Jamie J Johnson.

He continues: "They did well to start with but the last time Britain took part, they came last and I think that was it. They threw in the towel.

"Britain and Eurovision have quite a strange relationship."

'Loveable losers'

Johnson's own relationship with Eurovision started around three years ago, when he shot a pilot for what would become the full-length documentary.

"I had researched it online and I liked the fact that they sing their own songs. It seemed really amateur and I really liked that homemade side of it," says the 31-year-old filmmaker.

"It wasn't a lot of pushy parents. The kids have the time of their lives and there's lots of emotion to it. It's really the most important thing for them."

New Brit documentary is on song

With the so-called "big four" Eurovision countries - France, Germany, Spain and the UK - choosing to side-step the contest, it really is a chance for smaller nations like Georgia, Armenia and Belarus to shine.

So, instead of a cynical expose of the tears and tantrums of a bunch of Hollywood-brat wannabes taking part in an exploitative beauty contest, Sounds Like Teen Spirit becomes a genuinely funny and poignant love letter to the boundless dreams of childhood.

Instead of following the favourites, the cameras spend time with what the press release cheerily describes as a collection of "loveable losers" - who, in your heart, you know won't win.

Heart-wrenchingly honest

Filmmaker Jamie J.Johnson with the Armenian entrants
When you're filming, you become their friend and their therapist and they do really open up.
Jamie J Johnson

There's 12-year-old Mariam, raised in a crumbling, Soviet-era high rise in Gori, 47 miles west of Georgia's capital Tbilisi, and the birthplace of Josef Stalin.

Yiorgos, a doe-eyed imp from Cyprus, goes fishing with his dad but hasn't landed a single fish in two years.

In one of the documentary's many heart-wrenchingly honest exchanges, he admits he is bullied and called "gay" at school because of his interest in singing and dancing rather than football.

Bulgarian hopeful Marina, 14, of the seven-piece Bon Bon, had a comparatively luxurious upbringing in a large house with a swimming pool but exhibits a kind of sadness and maturity beyond her years.

In a genuinely moving segment, she volunteers the information that her businessman father has recently left her mother for another woman.

She hopes he will see the documentary and come home.

One guy said it brought out his inner 13-year-old girl

Johnson admits he felt a responsibility to the kids. "When you're filming with them, you become their friend and their therapist and they do really open up," he says.

"But we tried to make them as rounded as possible and show their different sides."

There are hilarious scenes involving the more awkward kids learning dance routines, while more comedy is squeezed from the earnest adults, for whom Eurovision really is the biggest thing in the world.

And there is no getting away from the fact that it is all, well, a bit daft.

Johnson agrees: "There are moments when you just say to yourself, 'this is just immensely bonkers,' just the level of spectacle and pantomime about the whole show and how seriously people take it.

"The press circus that comes with it, there are hundreds of hardcore, devoted Eurovision fans that just live in this weird Eurovision world."

Dutch runner-up Bab Buelens
Even runners up are guaranteed a level of fame in their countries

Reviews, so far, have been overwhelmingly positive - film trade bible Variety was not alone in calling it an "irresistible crowdpleaser".

But Johnson - whose first film Holiday Around My Bedroom earned him a Bafta nomination for best new director - is taking it all in his stride.

"Everybody seems to be receiving it embarrassingly warmly, which is lovely.

"It does seem to make people remember their own childhood or puts people in touch with their inner child. It just reminds you what it's like to think like a 12-year-old.

"One guy said it brought out his inner 13-year-old girl."

Sounds Like Teen Spirit is released in the UK on 8 May.

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