I am an inquisitive person who loves to hear and view the arc of people’s lives. I wonder what they were like as children, imagine them as teenagers, young adults, arriving at middle age, etc. Now that I am older I look back and see life as a narrative that has its high and low moments – surprises, delights, tragedies and emotional trajectories. Michael Apted the director of 56 Up took on this challenge with his Up Documentary series following a group of 14 individuals from differing backgrounds and regions of the United Kingdom from the age of 7 in 1964 – interviewing them and coming back to film them every seven years – so we are now in their 56th year.
Expectations and regrets are tied up in this amazingly ambitious undertaking. I am in awe of the scope of this project that is astonishing in its wide-ranging breadth of investigation. Apted’s revisiting his subjects, viewed by some with ambivalence, and others with delight, or as an intrusion, can be both boring and mesmerizing. Depending on the interview-ee, a few were witheringly honest with the film-maker about the distortions (after editing and cutting) that the snippets/synopsis of the hours of footage of their lives, during these 7 year summary intervals, projected about their personal existence, often resorting to sound-bites without delving into a deeper understanding of how singular a life is lived.
Class distinctions were evident in the language, the clothes, the schools and Universities that the subjects did or did not attend. The World’s economic downturn impacted the working class much more than those who went to Universities, particularly the single mothers who had the hardest time coping to provide for their offspring, but had a resilience that was quite stirring and impressive. The family unit was a source of joy in almost every instance. The impact of how one’s life is lived is seen on their physiognomy as well. Some aged more attractively than others; life’s richness and disappointments are patina-ed and burnished on their faces and bodies. But what I found wonderful to experience is how some of the participants’ lives were more deeply realized at the age of 56 than they had ever envisioned.
I recommend this Documentary – despite Michael Apted’s often cursory and “pat” repetition of the same basic questions addressed to each subject. The gracefully edited flashbacks from previous films helped make sense of the years gone by, and were brilliantly interspersed with present-day footage. This is a movie that reinforces the speed of life’s passing… time does go by quickly and unrelentingly which can be both depressing and invigorating.