Forty-nine years ago British filmmakers wanted to test the thesis about how class still impacts the opportunities and limitations of the nation’s children, so inspired by the Jesuit proverb of “Give me a child until he is seven I will give you back a man,” Paul Almond and then researcher Michael Apted selected fourteen seven-year-old British schoolchildren of various economic backgrounds and listened to them talk about their lives and also asked them questions about what they thought their future would hold. It aired in black and white on British TV, but now it has proved to be one of the most important documentary film projects ever made. Every seven years since the first filming Apted, who eventually became a prominent feature and TV director himself, has returned to interview the subjects and check in on the progress of their lives.
Though the experiment began as a pragmatic albeit archaic exploration of social institutions, what has emerged is likely the purest vision of human life yet to be captured on film. For those who haven’t been fortunate enough to see the other installments of the series, the movie is peppered with clips from all of the early films; as a testament to Apted’s sharp directorship, the bits are frequent enough to fill in any contextual and narrative gaps without being redundant, which in a 150-minute documentary is of far greater importance than it might seem. Despite the ways they’ve grown apart over the years, the common thread is still visible. It’s really quite curious to see that even now, in the age of reality, the way these people act in front of the camera is no different that it has ever been; so much of “real-life” is engineered for drama, but here an audience can, through the comedies and tragedies of these lives, be confronted earnestly though not abrasively that actual real-life follows no rules or outside influences – regular people do exist and can be captured in an unbiased way without some ulterior motive of trying to sell you overpriced footwear or over-caffeinated soft drinks.
Watching the progression of the lives of these men and women is fascinating in its truth as well as the unpredictable nature of it all. But what 56 Up does best is how it inspires if not provokes reflection. The audience is privy to these lives through a vision that makes them almost transparent, bottling up hardship and joy and sadness and grace into an accessible movie – but Apted and these subjects are quick to remind the viewers that you can’t ever truly encapsulate seven years worth of events into a few short hours. Most of the interviews contain these men and women questioning the validity of the project, outwardly worrying that their interviews have reduced them to some neatly boxed idea of whatever kind of life they might be living whether its as a working-class single grandmother or a well-to-do professor at the University of Wisconsin. It isn’t until time is really taken to think about it that is one can realize just how much happens in the space of seven years. People get married, some get divorced, some struggle to reconcile with their lives, some revel in their blessings – all of which rises and falls over time – so you have to ask yourself: what do the years of your life say about you?