Richard Linklater has received deserved accolades as the writer and director for “Boyhood,” a film 12 years in the making that chronicled the life of a family. Filming 3 to 5 days every year for 12 years, the characters change in real-time as the story develops through screen-time. In addition to the characters showing their ages, the story was sculpted effectively to include changes in the world and society during the time of filming. I highly recommended the film if you have yet to see it.
While not a narrative feature, the “Up” series of films offers a similar insight into the lives of its cast as they progress through childhood, youth, young adult, middle age, and are now looking toward retirement. “56 Up” is a 2012 film 49 years in the making. Combining interviews from each of the 8 films in the series, “56 Up” offers both “street level” and “10,000 foot” views of the lives of the series’ participants. “Seven UP” was a British documentary shown on ITV in 1964. Based on the Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” the film follows a group of 14 children from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. The hypothesis of the 1964 film was that a child’s future was generally predetermined by the social class they were born into. Every seven years since, there has been an update showing the original children as they have grown into youth and adulthood.
Michael Apted, a researcher for the original show in 1964 and director for each of the subsequent 7 episodes, effectively moves in and out of the current and previous interviews of each character to show how the individuals have changed and grown through their lives. Using the abundance of previous interviews, Apted allows the characters the opportunity to do what many or most folks have wished for at some time, their older selves being able to speak with their younger selves, and visa-versa. Through pinpoint editing, the characters often seem like they are conversing with each other through time.
The series has not been without critics, the most critical being the participants themselves. Most or all speak about their hesitancy to continue, and some have skipped one or more of the films in the series. Similar to Linklater, Apted filmed each subject for about a week every seven years. The characters are critical in saying that seven years of living cannot be truly captured in seven days of filming. One subject made the astute connection that the film does not effectively show him as an individual, but does present a life lived out.
Another question is what, if any, effect the film had on the lives and decisions of the subjects. Would they have made the same decisions if their decisions and actions in life were not going to be documented? While this question occurred to me and some others who have seen the series, given that the subjects lived less than perfect lives, it seems unlikely.
The hypothesis of the project, that the position into which persons are born into determines generally where and how they live their lives, is for the most part confirmed as most of the participants stayed within the broad social settings of their birth. The major exception being Nick Hitchon who was raised on a farm, educated in a one room school yet eventually studied nuclear physics at Oxford and became a university professor in the United States. What is not born out from the hypothesis is a difference societal placement has on one’s happiness and contentment in life. After watching “56 Up” the feeling is that each participant lived their lives well within the duality that is one’s life, the life given through circumstance and the life shaped though choice. While looking at the “street view” provided in specific episodes, viewers see mistakes and misfortunes, yet looking at the “10,000 foot view” offered through the this latest film, viewers see individuals who are content with their current situation and life arc.
Watching many films of the series and especially “56 Up”, I was reminded of Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount against worrying, “Do not worry about life…” not fearing the future, but living in the present. Even in the midst of the difficult times through which the participants journeyed, they have come through those times and lived their life well. This teaching is exemplified most through Neil Hughes who perhaps has had the most difficulties in life, going through times of homelessness and struggling with mental illness all of which were documented and discussed in the series. Eventually, Neil found an unconventional niche in life through local politics and by faithfully serving as a Lay servant in the Church of England.
“56 Up” is a living example of scriptural teaching on peace and contentment that speaks to those who too often are weighed down by the worries and concerns brought forth by life’s challenges. The lives of the participants echo the words of the psalmist, “Be still and know that I am God,” Psalm 46:10. They also show the truth of scripture such as Hebrews 13:5, “keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, I will never leave your or forsake you.” For most people, as with each of the subjects, the dreams of childhood rarely come true, but, if one lives at peace in the moment rather than vainly in the past or solely for the future, one’s life can be a life of contentment, and happiness.
“56 Up” and all of the films in the “Up” series are available on Netflix and DVD.