2006Director: Michael Apted
Cast: Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield
his may be the first one that’s about us, rather than your perception of us.”
The above dialogue is spoken by Jackie, one of the participants in director Micheal Apted’s Up series. It marks a pivotal moment in the film, the first moment where one of the film’s subjects turns the focus away from the progression of their daily lives and confronts the methodology of Apted’s film. What might have been considered the artifice of Apted’s technique quickly dissolves, giving way to the penetrating honesty of this gem of a film.
Apted could have contented himself in merely depicting these people’s lives, never once questioning the means by which he obtained his information and how it might have altered or even obscured the truth his film sought to uncover. His decision to bravely reveal his subjects’ individual reservations about his ambitious project gives the film a depth and impact that separates it from the run-of-the-mill documentaries we often find ourselves forced to wallow through and singles it out as one of the towering achievements of all documentary filmmaking.
Every seven years, Apted returns to the same group of people, documenting their progress since their last encounter. The first entry was released in 1963, and now, over 40 years later, the series continues to amaze us with its profound insight into the human condition. In 49 Up, we find our characters approaching the twilight of their lives. Many of them have settled into comfortable positions, gotten married, had children and, in some cases, now have grandchildren. Apted continually contrasts the current views and opinions of his characters with what they knew and believed when they were children. We see the wide-eyed idealism of youth shed away, replaced by a resigned acceptance that life doesn’t always turn out as we anticipated. It’s strange to see one character disparage the wealthy for having everything, only to turn around 40 years later to find that she’s now a member of the privileged class. Or consider another character with fantastic dreams of becoming an astronaut eventually trumped by his descent into poverty.
What makes all this so fascinating is that Apted’s subjects are by no means exceptional. They represent ordinary people with ordinary jobs who have settled into a life of routine. Profound things happen to them, but profound in a subtle way, not in the larger-than-life status we’ve come to expect in movies. Excluding perhaps Neil, who worked his way up from wandering around Scotland without food or shelter to become a politician, no characters leads a life that far off from what many of us perceive of our own. In effect, whatever philosophy Apted’s film reflects remains attainable to almost everyone since his film achieves nothing less than offering us a time-lapse perspective on life itself.
Returning to the words of Jackie cited at the beginning of this review, I feel they resonate more deeply with us than if such views had been discarded by Apted because they reflect the views many of us would also share had we been thrust into such a position. It’s natural for us to doubt the authenticity of documenting everyday life. Once you insert a camera into the ordinary, it ceases to be natural. Having been raised on the dubious nature of reality television, we can’t help but fear manipulation on the part of the filmmaker.
By leaving himself vulnerable to attacks from his own subjects Apted, in effect, strengthens the impression his film achieves. Apted, who narrates the film and conducts the interviews, never positions himself as a puppet master in his own project. He recognizes his own weaknesses and in some cases even goads his subjects on to express critical viewpoints concerning their involvement in the film. As a result, he becomes a character in his own work, just as fragile and human as the people he is observing.
49 Up is currently playing in limited release.