By C. J. Hirschfield
It’s hard to be objective when you’re watching a film about people you’ve known and cared about for nearly 40 years, but I’ll try. I guess you could say that prolific British director Michael Apted’s Up documentaries represent the original reality series, following the lives of a group of seven year-old schoolkids he first met in 1964, and then checking in on their lives via celluloid every seven years. I myself first caught up with the series watching 28. 63 Up is now in theaters, and Apted’s “kids” are even more interesting as they approach retirement. And although Apted’s numerous Academy Award nominations for 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter assured his place in the annals of cinema, it will be the stories of Tony, Andrew, Sue, Nick, Bruce, Jackie, Peter, Lynne, Paul, Symon, John, Suzy, and Neil for which he might best be remembered.
“Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man,” is a famous saying attributed to Aristotle. Apted set out to explore whether the class one is born into indelibly shapes one’s future, or if circumstances and free will can change the course of one’s station in life. Apted’s thesis– that the British class system is timeless and a tough nut to crack–is certainly not without merit, but we learn that other factors–distant or absent parents, health issues, unexpected situations, a college degree—can dramatically affect life’s trajectory as well. And ultimately, it is resilience and connection to others that seem to bring happiness, no matter what your station in life.
Not to worry if you’ve never seen any of the previous films; you’ll be treated with well-edited segments over the years that will bring you up to date.
Apted chose his subjects from different socio-economic backgrounds—kids from boarding schools, kids who were wards of the state; working class kids; a child of a farmer.
It’s fascinating to observe the nature of the over half-century relationship the subjects have developed with Apted. Remember that they met him in childhood, initially having no say about their sudden celebrity created by the film’s huge success. As they got older, some have opted out completely, some occasionally, and some are in it for the long haul, citing their sense of loyalty to a man they’ve come to trust. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some conflict, and an occasional regret. Jackie accuses Apted of a sexist line of her interviews over the years that focused on domesticity and not career. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that social media now amplifies viewers’ reactions to the film and its subjects—both good and bad. ”Lots of baggage gets stirred up every seven years,” is how Suzy describes it; “a little pill of poison” is John’s description.
Their lives have often taken unexpected turns, but they’ve faced them with fortitude, and strength. Guileless and chatty at 7, sassy and brash (or introverted and shy) 14 year-olds, hopeful, hardworking and soul-searching 21 year-olds, and then adults dealing with real life issues, and now some health concerns. The 63 year-olds express frustration with the state of health care, Uber sinking Tony’s taxi business, and fears about Brexit.
They’ve experienced tragic losses, as well as small and large triumphs, including divorce, depression, death of parents, homelessness, family reconciliation, and coping with chronic, and even fatal diagnoses.
Their regrets? Answers include not having more children or additional education, working too much at the expense of family time, and fears that their kids might not have as many opportunities as they’ve enjoyed.
Over the years, I’ve continually been have inspired by the subject’s humanity and grace. Regarding answering Apted’s question about whether people are who they are at age seven ultimately seems moot. Whoever they were at seven, they have nonetheless been changed by what life has thrown at them, adding dimensions that couldn’t have been foreseen. Michael Apted’s brilliant Up series will go down as a tour- de -force of the power of storytelling, and for showing us the beauty represented by the everyday lives of all kinds of people.
At the end of the day, we cheer for these people, who’ve done their best with whatever they’ve been given in life. Their resilience is both admirable, and inspirational. Many of them actively give back to their communities, in both large and small ways.
At 3 hours in length, the film is long, but I was not bored for a minute. The editing is seamless.
As film interviewee Bruce says of himself, “There’s still plenty to do; it’s not over yet.”
Hopefully we can say the same about 78 year-old Michael Apted, and 70 Up.
Up is currently playing at throughout the United States and is expected to be available on BritBox in Spring 2020.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s in depth article “Does Who You Are At 7 Determine Who You Are At 63?” inThe New York Times Magazine.
7 UP director gives verdict on show’s stars – admitting ‘sometimes I wanted to kill them’ in the Mirror.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry and produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and has written a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years. She has also written features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield is former president and board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District and is on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free monthly movies in Oakland and Piedmont. C.J. says, “Documentaries make me a better person.”