‘7 UP’/’28,’ BRITISH DOCUMENTARIES
THE twin documentaries ”7 Up” and ”28 Up,” which were shown last night at the New York Film Festival (and which open at the Film Forum 1 on Oct. 16), constitute as fascinating a work of popular sociology as you may ever see. ”7 Up,” which was first shown on British television in 1963, collected a group of 7-year-olds from different class strata and let them describe their values, their prejudices and their hopes for the future. The same project takes on tremendous poignancy and a great deal more breadth in ”28 Up,” a follow-up study consisting of much longer profiles of the same people, revealing how their dreams and aspirations have changed with time.
”28 Up” also draws upon two earlier documentaries, made when the subjects were 14 and 21. And during the course of this development, the apparent prescience of ”7 Up,” in which several of the young subjects readily offer fully detailed outlines of their plans for careers, marriage and schooling, gives way to numerous surprises. Some of the 7-year-olds have indeed grown up to be everything they said they would be. One, an aristocratic boy who at 7 sang the virtues of private schooling and complained about the poor, has proven to be so accurate a reflection of his former self that he is seen fox-hunting at 21, and at 28 will not deign even to be interviewed. But several of the others, including a middle-class Liverpool boy who at 7 was the most handsome, animated and cheerful of children, and at 28 is a homeless derelict, become living reminders of the uncertainty of fate.
Michael Apted, who directed ”28 Up” (and worked as an assistant on the first film), interconnects the four different time frames very skillfully. Along with charting the growth and development of his subjects chronologically and telescoping their lives with startling speed, he also juxtaposes statements from one era with the contradictions or corroborations that came later. Mr. Apted is not interested in heavy ironies here, nor is he eager to reveal his subjects’ failures. But the film, even at its most matter-of-fact, cannot help speakingvolumes about the exuberance of childhood, the edginess and uncertainty of adolescence, the sweeping expectations of early adulthood and the compromises that inevitably come later.
Almost all of the 28-year-olds have married, had children and entered the trades and professions in which they will probably remain for a lifetime. Few express any desire for further accomplishment. When asked about the most exciting moments of their lives, several of those settled most firmly into middle-class family life mention sporting events seen on television.
But some of these people sound genuinely happy, particularly the ones who started out at either extreme on the socioeconomic spectrum. Suzi, who at 7 was a smug, mirthless rich girl envisioning a future life with two children and a nanny, has gone through a rebellious adolescence and emerged as a contented-sounding wife and mother. In the latter capacity, living in the country and married to a prosperous lawyer, she is giving her two children a nanny-less upbringing after all.
Paul and Simon, who at 7 lived in a state institution for orphaned or abandoned children, say they consider it a sizable achievement to be giving their own children stable homes. Each of these men flirted briefly, in his early 20’s, with a life of more independence; Paul sold everything he owned to buy a van and travel through western Australia, and the 21-year-old Simon declared he would never stay in his sausage-packing job for very long. But now Paul refers to himself and his wife as ”Mr. and Mrs. Average.” And Simon, the only black interviewee, says he finds it much easier to stay in the sausage factory and busy himself with his family than to hope for a change in his situation.
”7 Up,” by virtue of the outspokenness and candor of its young subjects, is a compendium of outrageous statements. ”I like my newspaper because I’ve got shares in it, and I know every day what the shares are,” says one wealthy boy. Another says his plans entail ”going to Africa and trying to teach people who are not civilized to be more or less good.” But in ”28 Up,” the first of these subjects now looks back on himself as ”a fairly precocious little brat.” And the second has become a teacher of immigrant children in a public school in London’s East End.
The effect of ”28 Up” is to bring a dimension of wisdom and insight to the earlier footage, and in doing this Mr. Apted has been subtle and selective. His film cannot presume to explain why each of these lives has followed the path it has; in the case of Neil, the extremely articulate and sympathetic man who has become a derelict, the limitations of the process are most apparent. But in tracing these lives so diligently, and in eliciting from his subjects the kind of frankness they display in all four interview stages, Mr. Apted has created an unforgettably vivid and revealing group portrait. Unmistakably, this is a work still in progress. It is to be hoped that, when the time comes, ”35 Up” and other installments will be in the offing.
Janet Maslin, NY Times, October 6, 1985