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A documentary series 42 years in the making

By David SterrittFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 2005



"Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man." The language of this maxim has not aged well: Not all children are males, after all!

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But such things were rarely thought of in 1964, when the words were used as the tagline of a modest little movie called "Seven Up!" that spawned the "Up" series - six films that have followed the lives of several British citizens over the past 40-plus years.

In an exciting home-video event, First Run Features has now released all the "Up" documentaries as a boxed set. It includes commentary by series director Michael Apted about the most recent installment, "42: Forty Two Up," and the project as a whole.

It all began when filmmaker Paul Almond directed "Seven Up!" as a one-off documentary for England's ambitious Granada Television. Reflecting the political interests of the activist-minded 1960s, it was meant to illustrate how class distinctions start molding people's personalities, personas, and proclivities from the early stages of childhood.

A wide range of subjects

Determined to spotlight this phenomenon and implicitly criticize it, Mr. Almond assembled several 7-year-old Britons who spanned the social spectrum - some living in a government-run orphanage, others privileged enough to attend the sort of school that teaches you to sing "Waltzing Matilda" in Latin, and others in places in between.

Like the tagline quoted above, the social cross section of "Seven Up!" is not ideal from today's standpoint. The most obvious shortcoming, as Mr. Apted admits, is that boys get more screen time than girls. Apted tried to remedy this in later installments by focusing on wives and girlfriends more than husbands and boyfriends.

On the up and up

Such flaws notwithstanding, "Seven Up!" drew much attention in 1964. A few years later "7 Plus Seven" attracted similar excitement, visiting the same group of youngsters - who didn't seem the same at all when interviewed as shy, hopeful adolescents rather than the rambunctious, unselfconscious kids they were the first time around.

Apted had taken the directorial reins by that time, and he's stayed at the helm through "21," "28 Up," "35 Up," and "42 Up," which rounds out the DVD set. He's now directing "49 Up," due next fall.

Each of the films is an updated portrait of the same basic group, although some of the participants have permanently or temporarily dropped out. The only nonwhite participant is missing from "35 Up," for instance, and by "42 Up" two of the most economically privileged members of the original group were absent. One of them is now (ironically) a BBC documentary producer.

These contributors clearly have mixed feelings about the project, and that proves the series isn't a self-serving exercise by camera-hungry showoffs.

Ethical dilemmas

Apted has his own mixed feelings about the films, including uncertainty over what he'll do if a series participant dies before the series has concluded. He regards the group as both personal and professional friends, and he takes pride when members of the gang befriend each other.

Apted knows the "Up" series is not a scientific sociological survey; its sample is too small and its development has been too haphazard. This doesn't prevent it from being one of the most fascinating and revealing human documents ever put on film, however. Much of its interest comes directly from the area the original "Seven Up!" set out to explore: the class system and its effects on lives from their earliest stages.

The series' large and loyal international following (including a big American contingent) shows that its insights have much to teach us all.

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