“Searching for Sugar Man,” a movie about a musician from the 1970s who was a celebrity without knowing it, is a deserving winner of this year’s Oscar for best documentary. As much as I loved it, though, this week I’ve another documentary on my mind and make no apologies for drawing your attention to it.
Made for British television, it wasn’t an Oscar contender. It’s on limited release in U.S. cinemas right now and will make its way to DVD, but too few Americans will end up seeing it or even being aware of it. What a shame. “56 Up” is the newest installment in the most remarkable documentary-film project ever undertaken.
The series started with “Seven Up!” in 1964. The filmmakers chose 14 boys and girls, all 7 years old, from every stratum of English society and interviewed them about their lives and hopes. They were children from state schools and from private schools; from loving families, broken homes and an orphanage; urban and rural; rich, middle class and poor.
Splice of Life
That first film advanced a thesis, quoting the Jesuit saying, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” It was about the English class system, the role of inherited advantage and deep-seated social injustice. The adults these children would become were already as good as formed, or so the film supposed.
“Seven Up!” was a notable work in its own right, both charming (because 7-year-olds talking about themselves can’t help being charming) and disturbing (because the different life trajectories were indeed already apparent). What put the project in a category of its own was the decision by filmmaker Michael Apted -- a researcher on the first program and director of all the others -- to go back to the same children every seven years.
Each of the subsequent films -- “7 Plus Seven,” “21 Up,” “28 Up” and so forth to “56 Up” -- splices segments from its predecessors, so that every installment is self-contained and shows what has become of the children up to that point. These unfolding life stories are utterly absorbing and at times almost unbearably moving.
I’ve a particular interest, I know, because I’m an Englishman just two years older than the group and see fragments of my own life rendered in alarming clarity. Whatever your age or nationality, though, if you watch the films in sequence, I dare say you will want to write and thank me for the recommendation. (There’s no need. You’re quite welcome.)
Since each is self-contained, is it necessary to watch them all? Oh, certainly. As the lives lengthen, material from the earlier films has to be compressed, and every particle of information about the protagonists should be enjoyed and considered. You won’t appreciate the later films in full unless you’ve watched the earlier ones first.
After half a century of actuality, what remains of that initial theory of social predestination? The answer is, “It’s complicated.” And this is what gives the series astonishing force.
Yes, it helps to have two loving parents. Yes, it helps to have money and go to the best schools. You bet it helps. But the individuals in these films are above all exactly that -- individuals.
It’s all so untidy. They keep defying the stereotypes they are supposed to exemplify. After the first program, you see the filmmakers lose interest in their own theory. The dignity as well as the detail of each life forbid generalization of that kind. Once you get to know these people, you don’t want to insult them that way.
One problem you might expect Apted to face doesn’t really arise. Only one of the original 14 dropped out after “Seven Up!” Others take sabbaticals for an episode or two, but “56 Up” has interviews with 13 of the original group.
Subtler problems do arise, however, and Apted skillfully deals with them. One is that the lives grow not only longer but more complicated. In “56 Up,” especially, you have a sense that more of what matters to the group has moved, as it were, off-stage -- to ailing, aged parents; to their own children, now leaving home and trying to make their way; to grandchildren. The film allows the extended families their privacy. Perhaps at the group’s insistence, perhaps because doing anything else would have caused the project to collapse under its own weight, they’re shown but not studied.
Another difficulty is that the subjects have become conscious of their own role in Apted’s enterprise and, in Britain, minor celebrities to boot. Some enjoy it, some say they hate it, but all are affected by it. (In a previous episode, one of the group confessed that as the next spell of filmmaking came around, she felt an obligation to have done something interesting.) A lesser filmmaker would have kept this out of sight. Apted puts the issue on display, as well as letting the group complain about the way he has distorted or truncated them, as one or two insist he has.
Themes do emerge, and they’re no more surprising, I suppose, than the fact that it’s good to be loved as a child and bad to be poor. Dumb luck matters, yet to a great degree you make your own chances. Somebody with a large capacity for happiness can be happy in testing circumstances; somebody not blessed with that trait can find life a burden regardless. Some people are resilient; some are broken so easily it’s heartbreaking to watch. If there’s one key to satisfaction in life, it’s having the comfort and support of a loving partner -- and if finding and keeping that partner aren’t always easy, it could be your own fault.
Perhaps those are truisms. Seeing them expressed in the lives of real people over the space of almost 50 years is nonetheless a revelation.
(Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this article: Clive Crook at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at email@example.com.