NETFLIX STREAMING PICK OF THE WEEK: DOCUMENTATION OF LIFE (THE UP DOCUMENTARIES)

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56 Up, the newest Up Documentary, opens today at the Landmark Ken.

By Brian Lafferty

January 25, 2013 (San Diego) – In 1964, Michael Apted filmed 7 Up for British television.  He and his team sought fourteen children - all aged 7 - from all walks of life.  He found ten boys and four girls who he then interviewed about various political and social issues as well as their dreams and hopes for the future.

 

Since then Apted has revisited these children every seven years, interviewing them about their ever-evolving views on life, family, careers, and other general topics.  It's hard to believe that these "children” are now 56 years old; as previously mentioned, the latest documentary in the series, 56 Up opens today at the Landmark Ken Cinema. 

Netflix thankfully made it convenient for audiences to catch up.  The first seven Up documentaries (7 Up to 49 Up) are now available to stream on Netflix.  These documentaries are one of the most addicting movie series in addition to being among the most genius.  While many filmmakers from around the world - including here in the United States - have tried to duplicate it, it is Michael Apted's series that has been, and always will be, the most talked about and revered.

7 Up, which lasts about thirty minutes, is fascinating even though it plays more like a set-up and a foundation for the forthcoming documentaries than anything else.  Apted spends much time showing the different social classes, living environments, and other elements that thus far define these kids' young lives.  Suzy, for example, leads a very privileged life.  Of all the fourteen children, she is seemingly the most well-off.  Oppositely, Paul and Symon live in a children's home.  Paul's parents, it later turns out, are having a difficult marriage and would later divorce.  Symon, the only minority of the group, was born to a single mother and his father has never been in the picture.  Andrew, Charles, and John attend a pre-preparatory school in an upper-class suburb.  Jackie, Lynn, and Sue are students at a primary school in London’s East End.  Tony also attends a primary school in the East End of London.  Nicholas lives on a small farm in the Yorkshire Dales.  Peter and Neil are from the middle-class strata, residing in a Liverpool suburb.  Bruce, attending a boarding school, wants to be a missionary and "teach those who are not civilized to be, more or less, good.”

7 Up and 7 Plus Seven, the only two that aren't feature-length, lay the foundation for the series, which hits its stride at 21 Up.  The main ingredient of the movies' addictive qualities is how each one builds on the next.  Apted and his editors accomplish this by inserting footage from the previous films into the existing one.  This serves several purposes.  One is it shows these people’s ever-evolving opinions and views on life.  Secondly, it’s an opportunity for the participants to look back and reflect.  Lastly, it acts as a chart of their ups and downs.

The charting of these “children’s” constantly evolving views is another pleasure to be gleaned, and another reason it’s hard to not watch one of these films right after the other.  Suzy is an extreme example (but certainly not the only one).  At 7, she’s relatively confident and happy.  She wants to get married, have kids, and have a nanny look after them.  At 14, she’s so shy her eyes barely meet the camera.  In 21 Up, it is revealed her parents divorced.  During her interview she is nervous and tense, her voice a little cold, and she smokes.  When asked about her thoughts on marriage, she says her parents’ divorce left her feeling “very cynical” about it.  In contrast to her interview fourteen years earlier, she doesn’t want kids.

Flash forward to 28 Up.  She’s not only married, happy, and not smoking, but she has two kids.  Seven years may not seem long, but as Suzy’s story demonstrates, a lot can happen in that time.

Life is full of its ups and downs.  A number of the "children" get married.  Some of these marriages end in divorce (Symon's divorce from his wife and mother of their five children prevented him from participating in 35 Up), but they all manage to overcome the struggles of single parenthood.  There are other life struggles, too.  Neil, cute as a button in 7 Up, finds himself a homeless drifter by the age of 28.  He seems destined for an early end.  But he settles down in 35 Up and later rises up and becomes successful in politics at 42.

The interviews, conducted by director Apted, are exceedingly deep and insightful.  The relationship between Apted and his subjects over the years is both strong and complex.  Most of the participants are unafraid to open up about their personal lives and their trials and tribulations.  In later years, this honesty leads to some unexpected and sometimes testy moments.  In 49 Up, Jackie, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and went through a divorce years earlier, lets Apted know about her disapproval of what she feels is the series’ less-than-positive portrayal of her in the past. (She reveals that in 21 Up, she was so offended by one of Apted's questions that she got upset and briefly stopped the interview.) 

Even though these documentaries were, and still are, originally filmed for British television, their unique properties still make them as cinematic as any Oscar-nominated documentary.  

Brian Lafferty welcomes letters at brian@eastcountymagazine.org.  You can also follow him on Twitter:  @BrianLaff.


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