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The documentary series ‘Up’ has tracked the lives of a group of people since 1964

All the participants in ‘21 Up’.  

The ninth edition of the iconic Up documentary series aired in Britain and Australia this June. When the first film of the series was aired in 1964 in Britain, it wanted to make the point that class and stature of British citizens was predetermined by birth and that social mobility was well-nigh impossible. Produced by Granada Television for Britain’s ITV, the original makers of the series set out with this quote (variously attributed to Aristotle and Francis Xavier) as their premise: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”

The producers chose 14 children from various socio-economic backgrounds, and visited them every seven years to film the defining documentary. Of the 14 seven-year-olds, four were girls. In the very first film, the producers posed to the youngsters questions about money, school, romance and ambitions. Since then, with each documentary, the filmmakers have attempted to test their original theory to find out if the master key to the adult was indeed the seven-year-old.

The Up series is not unique in its theme, and has also inspired several remakes around the world. There have been several instances in cinema where the same set of on-screen participants has been brought together after long periods of time by the same filmmaking outfit. Truffaut’s group of films on the Antoine Doinel character featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud is also a documentary on the actor evolving from the reticent teenager of The 400 Blows (1959) to the mature 35-year-old of Love on the Run (1979).

James Benning made a shot-for-shot remake of his film, One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), 27 years later with the same people and locations. Long-running franchises such as the Harry Potter films (2001-11) double up as records of their actors’ physical and emotional maturation. A more recent example, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) was periodically shot over 14 years with the same group of actors who portray a family in the film. Not to mention numerous sequels and spinoffs where performers reprise their original roles.

What makes the Up series more significant, however, is its social, historical and human value. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” wrote Kierkegaard. The participants of the Up films are real people living out their lives, figuring things out as they go along. As they approach the twilight of their existence, these films accrue more meaning, narrativising their lives for them and for us.

The documentary series ‘Up’ has tracked the lives of a group of people since 1964

Changing landscape

In a way, these films chart the changing political landscape of Britain — from the orthodox conservatism of the early 60s, through the international cultural tumult of the 70s and the economic upheavals of the Thatcher era, to the promises of the European Union and, now, a post-Brexit period.

Throughout the films, there is this dialectic between theory and reality. There are questions from the first telecast that every subsequent film keeps coming back to: the participants’ financial situation, their relationship with the opposite sex, their schooling and perception of other social classes and their impression of the series itself.

In the initial films, director Michael Apted (only 15 years older than his interviewees) seems to have the answers preconceived in his mind. In the second and third films, (1970, 1977), he handpicks passages from the interviews that seem to suggest that Tony, the East End taxi driver, will likely get mixed up in a betting racket while the private school boys, John, Andrew and Charles, will cruise through their checklisted lives. It didn’t exactly turn out that way. Tony rose up to middle-class, while Neil, with his middle-class upbringing, fell way down the ladder. The social-minded Bruce settled into a middle-class life while Oxford alumnus John got involved in philanthropic work. These strange turns of reality soften the filmmaker’s convictions and the later Up films open up to the nuances of human existence. The progression of the series, then, coincides with Apted’s own intellectual and sentimental development.

As the series grew popular, the participants too ceased to be isolated, passive subjects of study, their lives now touched by the exposure the films give them. The great learning of documentary filmmaking in the 20th century is also that of 20th century physics: that the observer impacts the observed through the very act of observation. Thanks to his appearance in the series, Tony, an amateur actor, got bit roles in films as a cabbie. When Neil was down and out, letters of support poured in. Peter, a lad from Liverpool, was subject to tabloid humiliation for his criticism of the Thatcher government. He dropped out of the series for four films, but came back in 56 Up (2012) to promote his band. John used the series to raise awareness of his charities.

Some of the children in 1964, aged seven.

Some of the children in 1964, aged seven.  

Mist of mortality

The interviewees become more vocal about the series as it progresses: in 56 Up (2012), Lynn, one of the London girls, rips into Apted for being blind to the women’s lib movement and for trying to box her into the housewife type in 21 Up (1977); John objects to Apted’s original portrayal of him as traditionally upper-class and Tony to his depiction as a potential felon.

As the years go by, the mist of mortality that hangs over the series becomes thicker. French film critic André Bazin likened filmmaking to Egyptian mummification in that it preserves a slice of a person’s existence for eternity. Conversely, every photographic portrait carries with it a mark of death. A future viewer of the Up films — their ideal audience — will inevitably be burdened by a tragic consciousness. Watching these films end-to-end is to be aware of the fate of these participants, the hope and wonderment in the children’s eyes slowly giving way to the weary wisdom of their adult selves. Like the director, the viewer will then have recognised herself in these lives, in the transience of these lives.

Therein lies the ultimate lesson of the series, an unfinished work that will end when the last of its interviewees passes away: though shaped by forces larger than itself, every life is irreducibly unique, worthy of attention in itself; but every life can only be understood in generalities, through frameworks larger than itself.

The writer is a film critic based in Bengaluru.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 2:42:11 PM |

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