The Up Series

“Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” – attributed to¬†Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuit Order

I’m thinking a lot about documentaries lately. I’ve got no less than two classes working on them this semester. I took great pleasure in producing (a short) one last semester for an EDUCAUSE focus session that featured my colleagues at UMW, along with other faculty, staff, and students. I’m also working on a resource to help students create them, so in turn I’m thinking about some of the greatest documentaries ever made.

The above quote, supposedly from Francis Xavier of Jesuit fame, is the framing of what is collectively known as the Up Series. Michael Apted was a researcher on the first film of the series, Seven Up, which began to tell the story of a group of children all at the age of 7 years old. The series begins by asking the children some different questions about their lives, their dreams, the opposite sex, and race among other things. Every seven years after that, Apted has revisited (and directed) the subjects, first with the follow-up film 7 Plus Seven. Then with 21 Up, 28 Up and so on all the way to 2012′s 56 Up.

Not only is the Up Series a documentary, but the seminal “longitudinal” documentary, and therefore belongs on any list when thinking “best of”. What fascinates me most about this documentary is that the storyteller bias is in a strange way magnified as it spans it’s almost 50 years. The idea that questions that are asked of these children, and how they answer the questions in subsequent years, constitute “their lives” reveals itself to be quite tricky. In the first film one of the 7 year-olds maps out all of the schools that he will attend in future years, from prep-school to university. In one of the follow up films, when he has finally achieved what was previously stated (save substituting Oxford for Cambridge), he complains that he did indeed achieve it. What wasn’t shown was all of the hard work, and anguish, and sleepless nights. For as long a time as this documentary spans, the parts of the story that get left out are equally massive.

Recently, WNYC’s On The Media program revisited the series and spoke with Mr. Apted. It turns out he didn’t know that the previously mentioned 7 year-old, named John, had lost his father and wound up getting a scholarship to Oxford because of financial difficulties. John complains that the director made it out to be a “indestructible birth-right”, when it turned out to be a struggle. Apted still argues that there was a strong “guiding hand” and an “empowered” background. John’s father died when he was eight or nine. So the question remains was the “man” made at seven?

The films are generally about class and how life paths go in such unpredictable directions. There is a strong focus on education and choices made, or not made, that determines those directions. It is also about politics and religion and race as some of the subjects discuss how those parts of society fit into and affected their lives. I haven’t seen 56 Up yet, but supposedly because of the political situation in England with the financial downturn and subsequent austerity programs, the now 56 year-olds are quite politically vocal. I can’t wait to see it.

Ultimately we have to decide if we see enough of the man, or woman, in the 7 year-old to prove the Jesuit thesis. However, the journey is equally fascinating and we see many different people all in the same body as they grow to adulthood. And even how they change in adulthood. One of the participants, Neil, complains that even though he has received hundreds of letters where people proclaim to know exactly how he feels, they still don’t REALLY know. We are a product of our life and we are all unique no matter how much we still try to classify ourselves and others.

By the way, the whole series, except for 56 Up is available on Netflix streaming. I strongly encourage you to see it.

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