‘56 Up’ A Profound Examination Of Class And Humanity
Published: Sunday, February 24, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2013 18:02
Take 14 seven-year-olds from all parts of England, from poverty, from wealth, from the nuclear family, from children’s homes, and follow how they trace their lives, checking up with them every seven years. Originally airing in 1964, Up series does just this, and this January, the British documentary series’ eighth installment 56 Up was released in the United States.
The Jesuit adage, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” was the supposition of Canadian director Paul Almond when he began the series, and consequently, the project operates under a rather morbid social context. Are the children of affluence bound for success? Are the children of poverty fated to be poor? 7 Up began the series with a clip of the children mindlessly running about a playground, building fake houses, and subconsciously separating themselves by social class—seemingly unaware of the cruel social context of this forced encounter. Forty-nine years later, 56 Up continues the experiment.
Except now they are aware, and at times extremely frustrated, with their involvement in the series. The original 14 is now only 13, as one member refused to be part of the series decades ago. As director Michael Apted follows the remaining 13 through their respective educations, or lack thereof, marriages, divorces, births of children, purchases of homes, mental illness, depression, devastation, careers, layoffs, religious endeavors, and otherwise intimate details of their lives, many of the now 56-year-olds voice sentiments of violation. And one cannot help but wonder, in certain circumstances, if the exorbitant social pressures of a televised life could have led to divorce or a failed career.
Even more disturbingly, the children’s background at age seven did have a strong correlation to the 49 years to follow. Consistently, the children of divorce or single parent families went on to their own failed marriages. Those receiving a college education had better marriages, and generally, their own children went on to college. In this sense, perhaps the project did obtain the expected result.
However, these trends say far more about the class system and the harsh financial realities of raising a family in England than the alleged social deficiencies the project originally set out to display. Furthermore, the complexity of these 13 lives heavily defies this reductionist model that diminishes the individual to a portrait of a social class.
One of the participants, Symon, was born illegitimately to a poor mother, and was raised in a charity home. By the failure of his first marriage, as depicted in 35 Up, the initial assumption was his troubled childhood merely resulted in a troubled life. However, 21 years later, he is remarried with two successful children, and serves as a foster parent, giving young people with similar circumstances to himself the support he never received.
“It’s not an absolute, accurate picture of me,” said participant Nick Hitchon, who is currently a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, in the film, “But it’s a picture of somebody, and that’s the value of it.”
56 Up captures a working portrait of humanity—in both triumph and devastation—candidly faithful and decidedly unique to human nature, and hints at something truly exceptional in the normal life. This accuracy is something reality television shows simply cannot achieve.
56 Up maintains consistent social undertones throughout its lengthy 139-minute duration. The participants frequently complain about the absurd financial state of England, on the difficulties of maintaining a job and raising their children—the fact the Up Series has partly become a medium for such commentary suggests the Aristotelian truth that people are by nature political. Furthermore, it provided a troubling perspective on how easily a voice is silenced by domestic life.
How often do we see a documentary about ordinary people, who aren’t involved in some tragedy or part of some great social movement? How often do we see a documentary about people who aren’t interviewed about a particular subject? How often do we simply ask what ordinary people perceive as important in their lives? This is the great charm of 56 Up, and perhaps the most troubling aspect of it—in these 13 faces, we are forced to see ourselves.