“56 Up” — The Greatest Documentary Film Series of Our Time
Imagine a movie nearly 50 years in the making.
Next, imagine an unscripted story where no one knows what’s going to happen, or what the actors are going to do or say.
In 1964, Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough, The Chronicles of Narnia), then an aspiring British filmmaker in his early 20s, went out and interviewed several children. These children shared a common characteristic. Each child was 7-years-old.
The children were selected at random and were asked some basic questions. They were scattered throughout various regions of England. Rich and poor, black and white — they represented different races, religions, and social classes. They possessed entirely different attitudes. Each was questioned about their lives, their dreams, and their expectations for what the future might bring. Typical of most children, their answers were completely candid, unfiltered by self-serving biases and well-guarded hesitation that gradually comes with maturity. The kids told it like it was.
Little did anyone connected to the film know it at the time, but these deeply personal in-depth interviews comprised of children revealing themselves in front of the camera (there were 14 children in all) marked the beginning of a lifelong odyssey which has since become an extraordinary documentary series now 49 years in the making.
Unfortunately, few people outside of the U.K. have seen this film series, especially here in the United States. However, it’s running this month on various PBS stations around the country (and available online at the link below). It’s also enjoyed a limited release in movie theaters earlier this year.
The latest chapter in the extended documentary series is called 56 Up. This most recent installment plucks its name from the current age of those 7-year-olds who were interviewed way back in 1964. Now, they’re mostly wiser (and much greyer) at 56 — and continuing to grow older.
Accordingly, this most recent release becomes the ninth chapter overall. Following the initial series of interviews done on grainy black and white film with a gritty and socially stratified post-war England as the backdrop, director Apted returned time and time again to his subjects every seven years thereafter, watching not only the lives of real people unfold before the cameras, but also unintentionally bearing witness to life’s most common changes that we all face at various stages in our own existence. Each participant was interviewed in the years 1964, 1971, 1978, 1985, 1992, 1999, 2006, and most recently 2013. So, each film shows the participants at progressively advancing ages — 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, and now 56. Each installment includes frequent flashbacks to previous interviews. Hence, we see each of these people evolve.
Over time, these transformations are remarkable. Not merely visual, the changes are both external and internal. Most people inevitably change not only what they look like, but who they are.
We’ve all seen old photographs of ourselves and those we care about. It’s interesting to go back and look at funny hair styles and unfashionable clothes that seemed to fit so perfectly at the time. But there’s something far more revealing about a person in a well-done interview. Consider that none of the people in the film series are famous. They’re not even terribly interesting in terms of what they’ve accomplished during their lives. It’s all pretty routine stuff. Topics include things like schools, careers, families, children, divorces, deaths, re-marriages, job changes, financial swings, health problems, successes and failures. Pretty much the things we all face going through life.
And this is what makes the “Up Series” so utterly compelling to watch. Through these real people, we see ourselves — our hopes and disappointments, and ups and downs. This isn’t necessarily a film about them. It’s a film about us.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, even nearing a half century after filming began, it remains very much a work in progress. They’re each 56 now, which means there’s at least another three or perhaps even four decades still to go. Imagine if someone lives to be 100 (and odds are, at least one will); that means the final chapter of this film will take place in the year 2057.
This is true reality television. There are no contrived plots or phoney characters. Only real life people and their vulnerabilities.
Yes, they’re English, but they could be from just about any country. I dare you to watch any part of this series and not come away with new insights about aging and maturity. It’s a remarkable testament to the most fundamental human quality of endurance and adaptation to how the social and economic environment changes. And most assuredly, it will always change.
Oddly enough, none of this was the original intent of the filmmaker. Apted initially set out to film a one-time expose. He hoped to reveal how basic attitudes are already shaped to a certain extent by age 7. From those early interviews we see that some children already held biases against underclasses, while others where envious of those with greater social and economic privilege. Some were already ingrained with racist and sexist attitudes (some of which are pretty hilarious). Yet all shared an absurdly naive optimism that they could still accomplish anything they wanted. Then, reality begins to set in and every seven years we (the viewers) get to go back into these same lives and see what went either right or wrong.
What we see is this: In most cases, the children stick with their initial interests in life. It seems that even by such a relatively young age, kids are already tethered to certain interests and potential career paths. Without intentionally doing so, this is a stunning reaffirmation that our personalities are already pretty well established by the time we start attending school as youngsters.
Yet family lives aren’t quite so easy to predict. Virtually all the participants go through significant changes in their relationships. They get divorced, re-marry, and endure merry-go-rounds of emotional fulfillment and disappointment. Unlike our interests in life, nothing in our personal lives ever seems so certain.
What comes next? Well for one, as a mere viewer I’m not exactly thrilled with leaping ahead seven years and suddenly being 58-years-old. That said, I can’t wait for the next installment coming in 2020 — the year when each of those children interviewed back in 1964 will then be age 63.
Here’s a two-minute trailer of 56 Up (below).
The film in its 2 hour and 18 minute entirety can be seen HERE.
See more about the “Up Series” on PBS by clicking HERE