In 1964, British television produced a documentary with a simple premise. Taking the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” the filmmakers chose 14 seven year olds and documented their lives. They interviewed them, asked them about their hopes and dreams, and watched them at play. Then they repeated the process every seven years for a half a century. Significantly, the children were drawn from diverse backgrounds – some in orphanages, some in well-to-do families – and the question at play was to what extent means and opportunity would shape their lives. What the simple conceit of the Up series has created is an invaluable document of human life, one of the most extraordinary documentary filmmaking efforts ever made. The films offer a rare and precious look at the way real life unfolds in time, how we grow, change, age, love, and mourn.
56 Up, the latest installment, comes out this week. You don’t need to have been following the entire series along to jump in on the story. Like the previous installments, Michael Apted’s new film jumps back through the years and retraces the path that led these individuals through their lives. As some of the subjects of the film point out, the films present imperfect portraits of their subjects – limited in scope and intimacy. But what is striking is how thorough the stories are nonetheless. From the cabby’s treks through middle class life, to the spirited young man who lived a troubled life as a homeless person before finally finding a place in his church and local political office, life is presented as raw and inevitable, stark, surprising, and beautiful.