28 Up (1984)

“Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

28 Up Poster

Synopsis:
A group of diverse British children are interviewed at the ages of 7, 14, 21, and 28.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
I’ll be cheating a bit in my review of this “unique, fascinating documentary” by Michael Apted, which “began as a television short called 7 Up,” in which a “crew interviewed 14 seven-year-old school-children about what they wanted in their futures in regard to education, occupation, money, and marriage”, and then interviewed them again every seven years, with snippets from each set of interviews strategically interwoven. Peary’s review in GFTFF is of 28 Up (1984), but most film fanatics today will likely also have seen the follow-up entries — 35 Up (1991), 42 Up (1998), 49 Up (2005), and 56 Up (2012) — and I find it impossible not to reference the entire series in my own response. With that said, Peary makes a few key points in his review that remain relevant for all of the films in the series: he writes, for instance, that “the viewer is placed in an awkward position in that s/he becomes a judge as to whether these 28-year-olds [or 35, 42, 49, 56-year-olds] have succeeded, as most contend they have, in reaching their potential happiness; and the unfortunate tendency… is to feel superior to most of these people who have lives we don’t envy”.

Peary further asserts that in 28 Up, “the ‘successes’ we see are those subjects who have somehow achieved some freedom” — such as Nick, “the science researcher who… fled with his wife to Wisconsin” and Paul, “the bricklayer who is raising a family in Australia”; but he pities both Neil, the “near-genius who has dropped out altogether and lives on welfare” and “a cabbie [Tony] who is satisfied with [the] ‘freedom’ he gets from his job and his close family life, but whose poor education deprived him of what a person of his natural intelligence and warmth deserves”. He argues that the “picture leaves you sad”, but notes that “surely a documentary on any seven [sic] subjects taken over 20 [sic] years would have the same result because, let’s face it, kids look happier, cuter, and more enthusiastic than adults”. Interestingly, seeing the participants at later ages (specifically 56, as in the most recent entry) allows one to feel a little less melancholy about the inevitability of both heredity and class, as nearly every participant seems to have achieved some measure of happiness and contentment — whether through (re)marriage, grandchildren, and/or career. Few, for instance, would feel sorry at this point for Tony, who has actually achieved an enviable measure of financial success (he owns a second home in Spain); and while Neil has continued to struggle with his mental challenges, he’s been able to pursue his dream of a career in politics.

Apted’s series has been rightfully praised over the years as an invaluable longitudinal document of humanity itself — regardless of its specificity in following Britons from a certain generation (and mostly white males, an initial “casting” choice Apted apparently regrets). While there’s nothing particularly innovative about the way in which Apted films his subjects, or the questions he asks them, his devotion in tracking down the participants like clockwork every seven years (or occasionally in between, as when he filmed a participant’s wedding) is an impressive feat in itself. (Apted is reportedly so devoted to this project that he’s said he hopes someone else will take up the mantle in the event of his own death; he’d like to follow the participants to the ends of their lives.) One also feels appreciation for the dedication of the participants, all but one of whom have chosen to reappear in most (or all) of the episodes; long before the advent of “reality T.V.”, they have graciously allowed at least portions of their lives to be on public display. Most film fanatics will eagerly await the next installment, and hope that all the “children” — Andrew, Bruce, Jackie, John, Lynn, Neil, Nick, Paul, Peter, Sue, Suzy, Symon, and Tony — will still be alive and well at the age of 63 and beyond.

Note: Devoted followers will enjoy watching the entire “Up Series” (as the DVD set is referred to); others may simply want to watch 56 Up and work backwards as desired.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An enduringly fascinating long-term social document
    28 UP

Must See?
Yes, as part of a deservedly classic documentary series.

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One Response to “28 Up (1984)”

  1. A once-must, for its unique value as both a documentary and a sociological study.

    Off-hand, because of the scope of this series, I can’t recall whether or not I’ve seen this particular section or not… but I believe I have. At any rate, it was either this or ’35 Up’. Essentially, the territory was familiar to me on this rewatch.

    I don’t particularly think that “most film fanatics today will likely also have seen the follow-up entries”. In fact, I don’t think this is the kind of film that the average film fanatic would be drawn to – unless, possibly, there was a leaning toward documentaries. Of course, I do think the average film fanatic *should* be aware of the series and at least see part of it (especially this part, since it seems the most crucial). But I think those who would see it would be a smaller percentage of ffs.

    If, in fact, the “picture leaves you sad”, I believe that’s, in part, a flaw of the filmmaker. As admirable as the project is, Apted (for whatever reason) makes a point of comparing the lives of his participants (who are mostly of a working-class background) to those (not filmed) who have had more of a ‘silver spoon’. A few of those interviewed in ’28 Up’ wonder why he does this and question him about it. One actually says, “You keep asking me if I’m worried about (not having more advantages).” – while another lets us know that she never thinks about comparing her lot in life to those who are better off… until Apted asks her about it when a new part of the series is being filmed.

    It’s rather a curious thing: why didn’t Apted focus on their own reasonably-well-off levels (it’s not as if they’re poverty-stricken) and ask them about their feelings re: navigating within their actual strata… instead of indirectly feeling sorry for them for not having more than they have?

    I don’t sense that Apted “pities” Tony but it’s more likely that he did pity Neil. However, Neil is the subject who seems to get the most time of anyone here. As a result, viewers may get a better understanding of him than the other subjects. (I probably personally related to Neil more, in the sense that it resonated with me when he speaks about his parents not giving him any guidance about any particular ‘policy’ as a map for life. It’s certainly unfortunate that such a lack left Neil not feeling the need for discipline – however, the interviews with him also touch on certain psychological issues that wouldn’t necessarily (though they could) arise strictly from parental indifference.

    Overall, the true value of this documentary is that it affords viewers the chance to look at their own lives and reflect on their own progress, in order to take stock. After all, how many of us simply choose to forget that we were once children? How many of us wonder whether or not who we are now is essentially connected to who we always have been?

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