Monday, January 22, 2007


Documentaries of the week:
14 UP
21 UP
28 UP
35 UP
42 UP
49 UP

The problem with “reality TV” is that there’s nothing real about it. Take some of your most popular shows, like “Survivor”, “The Batchelor”, “Big Brother”, “American Idol”, “The Apprentice”, ”Wife Swap”, “Real World”. If you think about it, these are not real people. Oh, they’re not actors or anything – but you’re certainly NOT seeing anything real. All of the participants are carefully chosen for specific personality traits. All of the situations are artificial and fabricated. You might as well watch movies – like some of the ones on this recommendations site.

If you’re looking for reality, try a few documentaries.

In 1963, film-maker Michael Apted began a documentary series, that was unprecedented and, as yet, unmatched in the history of cinema. He selected 14 children, age 7, from around the London area and interviewed them. The children were chosen from different neighborhoods and from different social and economic backgrounds. He asked each of the children questions about what they thought, on a range of topics from education, their relation with their parents, girlfriends and boyfriends, and the difference between races. The personality differences between them couldn’t have been more dramatic. The documentary was released on British television under the title “SEVEN UP”.

It was meant to be an indictment of the class system in England. He wanted to show that children of wealth and privilege had better education, and thus better prospects than poorer children. He didn’t realize, when he started, that it would turn out to be much much more.

Seven years later, he did a follow-up piece called “SEVEN PLUS 7”, where he found the same set of children from the first film and interviewed them again. The contrast between the children at age 14 and age 7 was astounding. It was here that Apted realized the potential in what he had done. He had illustrated an evolution in the lives of 14 real people. Since then, every 7 years, he's tracked down the same group of now no-longer children to follow up on how they're doing (21 UP, 28 UP, 35 UP and 42 UP). In 2005, the group turned 49 and thus came "49 UP".

There exists a very dedicated cult-like following for these films. Some critics believe that the reason they’re so popular is the same reason that people like “reality TV shows. Most of us have a voyeuristic tendency that makes us undeniably curious about people and their ordinary lives. Celebrities, the people next door, people we don’t even know – it doesn’t matter, inquiring minds want to know.

Now, in the case of these “UP” documentaries, this is an ideal opportunity to satisfy your innate voyeurism. You meet the children at age 7. Every 7 years you get another look at them. You find out what their lives are like, what they’ve been doing, what they think on a variety of topics, what they hope for the future.

But - in the case of these UP DOCUMENTARIES, voyeurism is not enough to explain the fondness for these films. Instead, it’s like running into old classmates of yours every seven years, having drinks, and catching up. There are real connections made to the characters. You find that you really become concerned with them. If they’re not doing well, you genuinely feel bad because you knew them earlier when they were carefree, and you look forward to the next installment to see if they’re happy, or if they’re successful, or not. I simultaneously am looking forward to 56 UP and dreading it because I know, sooner or later, that someone is going to die, and I’m going to have to deal with it. It’s that powerful.

Watching the films in succession, you not only see an evolution in the people, but also an evolution in the times, as you go from 1963 to the present. Times change, and so do the people, and so do you. It’s an evolution of life – it’s the story of all of us. Although most of the participants feel it an intrusion that every 7 years, a film crew comes into their lives to chronical their successes and failures, their widening waistlines and gray hair count and wrinkle count, their loss of their parents and other close family members, the success and failure of marriages, etc. However, most realize the importence and influence that these films have had, and agree to take part. When they do, nothing is held back - you see everything.

I realize that this is a fairly large investment in time. There are seven discs in all, each is approximately 2 hr. It makes it easier if you schedule the viewing over time. Watch them in order, maybe 1 a week, or 1 every two or three weeks, or 1 a month. The older ones may be hard to find. If you have trouble, I can try to help you locate copies. Don’t skip any and start at the beginning. It just works better that way. Here is a list of possible resources.

  1. Your local video store. They may not have some of the older films, however the series has recently been rereleased in a box set on DVD. If your store doesn't carry it, you might try requesting it. You can tell them that "... demand for it is about to skyrocket as it has recently been featured on FranksFilms."
  2. Your local public library. Public and university libraries have become an important source for me for finding films, especially independent or obscure films (like these). Also, if they don't carry it, they can often search other libraries in a huge network and import it in, just for you. It's what taxes are for.
  3. Amazon. If you feel like purchasing it, it's of course available at Amazon.
  4. Blockbuster Online. Don't try to find them in your local Blockbuster store, but their on-line service carries it.
  5. NetFlix: I know they have because that's where I found it. Think of it - you could be watching the very same disc that I watched.
  6. In the UK, this is a huge source for films.
  7. Cinesnap - France; Netleih - Germany; BigPond - Australia;.
  8. Friends, neighbors, co-workers. Find the avid cinephile from the list of people you know. If they don't know about this series, show them this article. They, of course, will run out and find it - they have their sources. Then , simply beg borrow or steal it from them.

You might read this and decide that this sort of thing just wouldn’t interest you. I’m willing to bet real money that after you see it, you’d be wrong. If you watch this instead of "Idol", at least you'd be watching something real.

Note: 49 UP scores a 96% on the tomatometer. Go there to read some of the incredible reviews relating to the whole series.



At 11:09 AM, Blogger Jan said...

Thanks -- I've been meaning to add this to my queue for a while, but keep forgetting. Now it's going on!

At 9:43 AM, Blogger FranksFilms said...

I actually had you and David in mind when I posted this. Stephen is nearing 7.

At 5:00 PM, Blogger Jan said...

OMG, that's true. How can my BABY be nearly 7?! But yeah, 3 months and 20 days and he'll be 7.

No wonder I have all these grey hairs...


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