If you were asked to determine what single piece of film should be put in a time machine to preserve what it means to be human for future generations, or to send a synopsis along with a new Voyager space probe to a distant world so they could learn about us, what would you select? For me, there is one documentary series that rivals all other documentaries and non-documentaries alike, that required so much thought, cooperation, and coordination over the years that it is amazing it was even possible. That series is Michael Apted’s Up Series. At a basic level, this true life tale of class and social inequality may very well be the closest we ever get to time travel.
Roger Ebert has called the series “an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium. No other art form can capture so well the look in an eye, the feeling in an expression, the thoughts that go unspoken between the words. To look at these films, as I have every seven years, is to meditate on the astonishing fact that man is the only animal that knows it lives in time.” It’s also on his list of the 10 best films of all time.
In May, British TV released 56 Up, the eighth installment of the Up Series, the reflections on the 56th year of the life of a group of 14 British citizens first chronicled in 1964 in Granada Television’s film for the BBC titled Seven Up! directed by Paul Almond. A researcher who helped select the original 20 seven-year-olds for the project, Michael Apted, came back every seven years thereafter to interview as many of the original students who were available and interested in participating. The premise of the film was taken from the Jesuit saying “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”
The series is probably the most important film ever made, simply because it is a camera’s eye on real-life people discussing every day life over the entire course of their lives. Fans worldwide have eagerly awaited each episode, and it is truly the first reality series ever made, and with that has come the good and the bad. The good is allowing the participants themselves to see how they have changed over the years and allowing us to share in that. The bad is the antics of fans of any subject, made up of ongoing questions: Who will participate next time? Who has prospered? Who has had hard luck?
The scrutiny has apparently affected the participants in many ways. One installment suggests the negative light in which one man’s wife was viewed in a prior installment may have led to a divorce. Members have dropped out, and come back again later as their perspectives on the series changed, one man helped another who was in trouble, another shot from homeless person to a surprising role in politics. Apted has commented in recent years that he wished they had included more women, and that they initial intentionally pulled participants from the extremes of society.
Worldwide, those who watch the series find they much watch all prior installments–it is very addictive. You also note commonality, such as participants experiencing bouts of family death all in the same year span of their lives (just as would happen with others throughout society). You also find yourself cheering for the success of each person, or maybe the person you most relate to, in subsequent installments. The participants have been a mix of commoners to a taxi driver to professors and politicians, consisting of Bruce Balden, Jackie Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Peter Davies, Susan Davis, Charles Furneaux, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Suzanne Lusk and Tony Walker.
As for 56 Up, Americans will have to wait a bit longer, although it is expected that niche arthouse theaters will be showing 56 Up on the big screen across the country by year end. We can’t wait!