For the past 55 years, Michael Apted has embarked on a project that is both a landmark documentary film series and the ultimate reality TV program. Since 1964, Apted has followed the lives of a group of 14 representative British citizens from varied backgrounds, starting from the age of 7 and checking back in with them every seven years. The first film was called Seven Up!, and there have been eight more installments since; hence, the title of the latest is 63 Up, which aired on British television earlier this year as a three-part, three-hour miniseries, but will be released abroad theatrically with roughly 45 minutes shaved off. The overarching thesis of the series is stated thusly: “Give me a child up to the age of seven, and I will show you the man.” The gendered specificity of that statement points out one of the limitations of this project; namely, its baked-in sexism. One of the women subjects sharply calls Apted out on this, pointing out the overwhelmingly family- and marriage-based nature of Apted’s questioning of the women participants, as opposed to the broader subject matter that constitutes his interviews with the men. It’s a startling, provocative moment that briefly disrupts the relatively genteel atmosphere of the rest of the film.
Apted’s socio-cinematic experiment is demographically limited as well: with a single exception, all the subjects are white, and all the romantic relationships are of a heteronormative nature. Despite these limitations, however, 63 Up remains a compelling, often moving document. The film constantly cuts across each participant’s filmed lifetime, alternating between various versions of their older and younger selves. Even though this is as real as reality gets, the cinematic effect is that of time travel science fiction, with each participant effectually speaking to themselves across the years. Since the subjects are now roughly at retirement age, mortality is a major concern of all the participants, and in this latest installment the inevitable occurs: one of their number passes away, a death in the family, as it were. The personal and the political are given equal weight here. Besides the family dramas, Britain’s changing social and economic climate, as well as the effects of the Brexit referendum, are touched upon. So as with the series’ previous segments, one is largely left with admiration for the continued dedication of both Apted and his subjects, and this time left with a more affecting hope that enough of them remain aboveground to make a 70 Up possible.
Published as part of New York Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 3.