Every seven years, Michael Apted films the same small group of people and shows us how they’re doing. That’s a very simple overview of the “Up” documentary series which began in 1964 with Seven Up, a half-hour film that focused on the lives of 14 British children from various classes and socioeconomic backgrounds. Apted didn’t actually direct the first film (Paul Almond did, but Apted was a researcher), but directed all the subsequent films, so he knows these people pretty well. (Can you imagine a man wanting to interview and film you every seven years for half a century?) I just finished watching all of the “Up” films, ending with the most recent film, 56 Up (2012) and decided to share a few thoughts.
The seven-year-old children are asked several questions in Seven Up, such as “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, “Do you want to have children and if so, how many?”, “What do you think of rich/poor people?” and the like. These seem innocent enough questions to ask seven-year-olds, but what’s interesting is how much their answers change or don’t change over a 50-year period. In fact the entire series starts with the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.
One can view some of the children at age seven and see many characteristics - good and bad - that will shape the rest of their lives. Some live up to their initial expectations, hopes and dreams. Some do not. Some change in remarkable ways. Others don’t. I’m not going to give you any spoilers and I urge you not to look at any online information about any of the participants. Just watch these people move through their lives and try not to reflect on your own life. It’s impossible.
With that in mind, the staff of our church’s college ministry (I am one of the staff of four) decided to try an experiment. Students and staff watched Seven Up together, then we passed out journals to everyone. We asked them to write about what was going on in their lives at age seven and whether they were aware of God or not at that age. (This is a great exercise; you certainly don’t have to be a Christian to do it and to gain a tremendous amount of understanding from it.) The staff journaled as well. We all wrote for about 20 minutes, then got back together to share some general thoughts. The entire process was private, so no one had to share with the group anything they didn’t want to share. We were all amazed at what we remembered and how those events and memories helped shape us.
At our next meeting, we watched Seven Plus Seven. For most of the students, they were 14 only seven years ago, and while that seemed not that long ago, so much had changed. We asked them to journal again, focusing on how God had guided and led their lives over the past seven years. At the next meeting, we watched 21 Up, the age (or close to it) that most of the students are now, and journaled. Then two weeks later, we saw 28 Up, and journaled about where we thought God might be leading us in the next seven years (regardless of our ages).
This was an amazing exercise. It’s not the same experience as having someone film you every seven years, but it does cause you to think about your life, where it’s been, where it’s going, and so much more. While watching the “Up” documentaries, we’re literally watching these people’s lives pass before our eyes. And we’re also watching our own.
The films are not perfect and Michael Apted will be the first to tell you so. Early on, he realized that the initial films should’ve included more female subjects and certainly should’ve reflected more diversity. (All of the subjects are white, with the exception of one boy who had a black father and white mother.) Apted also admitted in an interview to Roger Ebert that it was very tempting to “play God” and steer certain parts of the film in the direction of where he thought certain characters were going. There’s one participant Apted was convinced was going to end up behind bars, so the director shot some footage of the outside of a prison to use in the next film. The participant did not end up in prison, and Apted humbly learned his lesson.
At several points in the films, Apted is taken to task by the participants (often rightly so) for editing the scenes and interviews to paint an inaccurate picture of their lives. By no means do we get a complete picture of these people. It’s just not possible. That realization is part of what you need to understand going in. By its own nature and popularity on British television and DVDs, the films also can’t help but overshadow any accomplishments the participants might have achieved apart from the films. One participant states (with humorous resignation) in 42 Up, that he hopes he’ll be remembered more for his work than for his participation in the films, but he knows that will never happen.
What’s fascinating is the number of people who have remained a part of this project. All of them are still living and although two of them have chronic conditions, 56 Up finds most of them in good health. Without giving away too many spoilers, one participant dropped out after 21 Up and has never returned. Some drop out from time to time and return, sometimes to promote some project that they are passionate about. One woman frequently mentions that she loathes the project, but continues to do it out of a sense of obligation. And others seem happy to participate.
Apted (who has had a long and successful directorial career, directing films such as The World is Not Enough, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Amazing Grace, Gorillas in the Mist, Coal Miner’s Daughter) has stated that he would like to keep the project going at least until the participants turn 70. In the Ebert interview, he stated that his ultimate goal would be to film them through their 84th birthdays. The only problem, Apted stated, would be that he himself at that point, would be 99.
While each of the films taken on its own is amazing, the films collectively represent something truly mind-boggling. The Up series is, I believe, a masterpiece. No other film or film series that I can think of shows us such snapshots of our lives and allows us to reflect on not only ourselves, but what our lives are all about and what we're doing here. The series is a journey of joy, sorrow, discovery, pain, wonder and more. It's a journey well worth taking.