Monday, December 25, 2006

49 UP

One of my Christmas presents (from my wish list) was Michael Apted's British documentary 49 UP.

This may very well be the most important documentary film series ever made. It started with 7 UP, interviewing a group of seven year-olds in 1963, with follow-up films every seven years, so you get to see a group of people age naturally. If you haven't seen them, you should. They are the ultimate reality series. I had watched the box set of the first six films last year, all on consecutive nights, and waiting eagerly to see the latest film. Since I'm teaching documentary in the spring semester, I thought I'd write a bit about it.

Apted fully admits that in the first three or four films he tried to prove that class distinctions guided your entire path in life. He also clearly tried to predict the future in several cases. One of the most fascinating things in the series is the fact that almost none of the subjects followed the route in life that you would have expected.

As documentaries, they are problematic. They are clearly made in the filmmaker's point of view. Almost all of the films consist of sit-down interviews to camera, hearing the filmmaker's voice, but never seeing him. I've always been a cinema verité kind of guy, having learned filmmaking first from Ricky Leacock. So I instinctively question anyone who takes such a strong point of view in a documentary. It's no longer a document (or truth in cinema) when you do that, it's propaganda.

There have been several instances of the Heisenberg principal (observer effects observee) in the series. The filmmakers chose to construct visits that would not have happened otherwise for several of the characters. Two characters who should have never even met ended up being roommates. Some of the subjects have confronted Apted both on-camera and off about not being presented in a proper fashion and the subjectivity of his choices. Several have refused to be interviewed in later films, and one will not allow Apted to interview him but allows another person to do so.

In this film he finally questions all the subjects about their participation in the films. It's interesting as NONE of them admit to enjoying it. Yet... they still do it. Some of them talk about the importance of the series, yet one points out that it's more like Big Brother (the reality show) than a truly socially siginificant experiment. I think the truth is somewhere in between. It's impossible to watch these films without becoming involved with the subjects, yet at the same time, I could say that about American Idol. However, there is a much greater depth to these series simply because of the amount of time spent on the subjects.

I'm not going to waste your time writing much about the subjects; I'll let you watch the films and do that for yourself. But I did want to mention one moment: it's worth watching the whole series just to hear Neil's comments about a butterfly in the sun at the end of the film. In addition to being a wonderful observation on the nature of life and happiness, it's the perfect metaphor for the film. The same way the scientist can examine the butterfly and appreciate its beauty, but never truly understand its thoughts, the filmmaker also examines his subjects through the lens, but will never be able to comprehend their inner workings.
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